Tuesday, April 20, 2010

U.S., unlike Europe, short on transport options

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U.S., unlike Europe, short on transport options | Railway Track & Structures

(The following editorial appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.) Unlike in the United States, air passengers stranded in Europe because of the effects of a volcano have more transportation options with highly interconnected and efficient trains, buses, and ferries.

Bumped flyers may be forced to travel cheek by jowl as they flock to alternatives, but the point is, they at least have a sophisticated transport backup to turn to. And its importance grows with each day that ash spews from Iceland's volcano.

Over the decades, the Europeans have worked steadily at building this extensive and generally reliable surface network - not without grumbling. Back in 1987, when construction began on the English Channel rail tunnel, the British were still debating its merits. Cost overruns in the ensuing years did not help the tunnel's cause. But the island inhabitants are surely thankful for it now, as the French railway SNCF says it will offer reduced fares and 80,000 extra seats between Paris and London this week.

All across Europe, ferries, trains, and buses are adding capacity to make up for the sudden lack of air travel - the largest shutdown of European airspace since World War II. The war comparison is an apt one, because it underscores the importance of transport as a national security issue.

The U.S. needs to again treat transportation with such seriousness. Within 50 years, America's population is expected to surge by 150 million people. Likewise, transportation experts expect huge traffic increases in freight over the next few decades. But over time, the U.S. has neglected its infrastructure, and in the case of streetcars and passenger rail, even eliminated or reduced these networks.

The country is slowly waking up to its transport deficiency. In the 2008 election, voters passed 25 of 33 ballot measures to increase local or state taxes to pay for public transportation. Californians passed a ballot initiative to start building a bullet train network. And since his election, President Obama has pushed forward high-speed rail.

America can foresee its transportation needs. But what about the unforeseen? Perhaps not a volcano, but another 9/11 or natural disaster, such as a severe hurricane season. The United States should be at least as prepared as Europe.

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