Forecaster Forum: Rails or roads? Do the math

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There are legitimate questions as to whether the U.S. made correct decisions around transportation since the 1960s, particularly the decisions to subsidize highway systems while regulating and penalizing the railroads.

Let’s say for the benefit of the doubt that an average car costs $25,000. Eight cars cost $200,000, 80 cars $2 million and 800 cars $20 million. Twenty million dollars represents the number of cars in less than one hour driving on an interstate highway, or the number of cars around you in a rush-hour traffic jam.

A 2005 Maine Department of Transportation cost feasibility study shows that reconstruction of the state-owned rail between Portland and Yarmouth costs $25 million, including rebuilding the East Deering railroad trestle bridge. Stations and operating equipment, e.g. rail cars, bring the total cost to $35 million for a commuter passenger rail service operating parallel to I-295 (on which every morning there are 5,000 cars driving into Portland).

Rail construction is $1 million dollars a mile. The reconstruction of the one-third-mile Martins Point auto bridge between Portland and Falmouth is a cost to taxpayers of $38 million. According to MDOT, the cost of reconstructing a roadway, which is needed every eight to 10 years, is approximated at $200,000 per lane mile. Include lanes, shoulders, crossing and signaling systems and the cost to taxpayers is $50,000 per mile every year.

A railroad built for speeds that compete with or exceed auto speeds will last more than 50 years, requiring only minimal annual maintenance. An auto-road requires expensive/extensive maintenance every year and a complete rebuilding every 10 years.

One mile of rail: $1 million every 50 years. One mile of road: $500,000 every 10 years. Rail: $20,000 per mile per year. Roads: $50,000 per mile per year.

The investment in a modern, 21st century transportation system (inherited from the 19th century) could realistically allow commuters and consumers to live with one car, a $25,000 savings. Additionally, consumers would save the $8,000 to $10,000 required to operate their cars annually.

Automobiles depend on roads. Roads in turn are designed around an oil-based pavement system, requiring government subsidies. Taxpayers are just wrapping up a $1 trillion investment in the Mideast, so that firms like Exxon can acquire oil in distant lands like Iraq.

Local, state, federal and household budgets are going broke supporting a system that is simply not sustainable. We should be seeking the greatest return on taxpayer investments. Rail offers a common-sense approach that uses a system running on steel, wood and rocks (all available domestically) that transports thousands of commuters, consumers and taxpayers to service communities along the routes.

The goal is to operate a robust regional commuter passenger rail system on Maine-owned railways, capable of traveling in excess of normal highway speeds, serving service center communities in the region.

Maine owns two railway corridors out of Portland: the Mountain Division from the Portland Transportation Center to North Conway, N.H., and the St. Lawrence & Atlantic from Portland’s waterfront to Auburn, eventually terminating in Montreal, Canada.

What is a higher return on investment: rebuilding roads every 10 years for tens of millions of dollars? Or a “road” for $25 million that lasts 50 plus years? There are private developers and there are market needs that can be matched if and when government funds are invested in a robust regional commuter passenger system. Proof can be found in the 10 years of operations of the Amtrak Downeaster, where hundreds of millions of private dollars have been invested.

It’s train time.

Tony Donovan is a Portland Realtor and president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition.