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Editorial> Track Record
Alan G. Brake bemoans transportation policy amid rising gas prices.
A rendering of the once-proposed light rail along Detroit's Woodward Avenue.
Courtesy Detroit 2020

In “Destined to fail: Rust Belt cities without rail,” the influential blog Rustwire argued that recent funding decisions by the Federal Department of Transportation have effectively condemned many struggling Midwest and Northeast Cities to a slow death. Rail, the piece said, is essential to the revitalization of these cities. And yet, the Feds recently dashed Detroit’s dreams of a 3.4-mile light rail line, indicating lower-cost bus rapid transit (BRT) was more feasible in the cash-strapped Motor City. Chicago, too, is going for BRT rather than expanding the L system (though that was the project for which the Chicago Transit Authority was seeking funding). “While better than nothing, BRT’s do not have the ‘wow’ factor of rail,” the editorial declared.

Rail is costly to build and operate, but it has a well-documented track record as an economic development tool, even if it is not a cure-all. In St. Louis, the population is still falling, down 30,000 people according to the last census. Along the city’s decade old light rail lines, however, neighborhoods are gaining density and economic vitality, according to analysis from NextSTL. So the question becomes, how serious is the federal government about investing in struggling urban centers?

Like countless other political questions, the two parties seem to be on completely different planets on this issue. The transportation bill recently passed by the majority Republican House would have decimated funding for transit (it has stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate), and Republican governors in Ohio and Florida scuttled the Obama administration’s high-speed rail plans in those states. In California, high-speed rail is on the chopping block.

The rail picture is not entirely gloomy for the Midwest. Cincinnati recently broke ground on a new streetcar line, and high-speed upgrades are underway on existing passenger lines in Missouri, Illinois, and Michigan. When the economy collapsed in 2008, some argued the big three auto companies should be partially retooled to build rail cars as part of a new green collar economy. That idea seems almost laughable now.

It is all even more dispiriting given steadily rising gas prices, which are expected to climb to record levels this summer. The Obama administration has failed to articulate the necessity for a more balanced, diversified transportation policy in face of soaring prices at the pump. As a result, the road to economic recovery could be bumpy, or even impassable.

Alan G. Brake