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The true cost of roads, trains and climate change

Brad Chase  |  03/04/10 @ 2:00pm

In order to achieve significant reductions in CO2, as a region we need to focus collective energy on three main areas – the transportation sector, energy generation sector and building sector. These 3 areas account for most of Northeast Ohio's carbon footprint.

We've identified 4 goals in the transportation sector where we can focus our energy to achieve meaningful reductions. These areas are: 1) reducing the number of vehicles and the need to travel; 2) increasing the efficiency of the vehicles we do need; 3) reducing the CO2 intensity of the fuel for vehicles; and 4) revising policies and practices that distort the true cost of transportation. Review complete GCBL transportation transition plan.

How does this begin to play out in Northeast Ohio?

A good starting point is to look at the true cost of transportation - the roads, rails, airports, ports, trucks, individual cars, congestion, air pollution, health impacts, etc. Determining the costs and benefits of transportation investments provides a solid footing to make consistent future investment decisions.

Unfortunately, assessing the true cost of transportation is difficult and often goes against well ingrained beliefs. For instance, what is the true cost of building a new roadway? And perhaps more importantly, do roads pay for themselves through user fees – registration and license fees and taxes on gasoline?

These questions are coming to the forefront in Ohio after the announcement of $400 million in competitive grants for the start up of the 3-C corridor connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati with up to 79mph start up passenger train service. In order for the region to acheive a reduction in vehicles and the need to travel, robust choices for travel must exist, including strong, local public transit systems and intercity transportation.

Opponents of the 3C rail quick start plan, point to numerous issues: the trains will run too slow, the draft schedule doesn't make sense, they will never ride, it is quicker to take a car, and one being frequently heard loudly, that train service in Ohio will require that dreaded word – a subsidy. Read the draft 2009 Amtrak study (12mb, pdf) that gave rise to these objections as well as a fact sheet on 2008 Amtrak impact in Ohio.

It is important to note that the reasons cited why the train can't and shouldn't work in Ohio are met equally with complaints of traveling by automobile and the benefits of having a transportation choice in Ohio: buying a car, insurance, gas and maintenance are expensive, parking can be difficult and expensive, it is not safe (and illegal in Ohio) to work on a laptop while driving, traffic and weather can make travel times inconsistent, and perhaps most importantly many people in Ohio can't drive or don't own a car for reasons including age, ability, financial means and personal choice. Just as the proposed 3C quick start train service won't work for everyone, neither does driving.

Currently, in Ohio there is no choice in how to travel the 3C corridor. Out of the 17 most populous states by density, only Ohio and Hawaii don't support passenger rail. (see map graphic above prepared by All Aboard Ohio). This leaves all of Ohio - our businesses, residents, and visitors - at a significant competitive disadvantage.

The federal grant funds to establish 3C rail start up service provide Ohio with this valuable choice, and represent a path that almost all passenger rail investment in the United States has followed, namely, develop successful traditional speed rail, build political support and rider base, and transform the service to higher speeds over time.

Ohio has tried on 4 prior occasions since 1972 to immediately establish higher speed rail on the 3C corridor - and each time it has failed. Current estimates for establishing rail service between the 3Cs that would operate at top speeds of 110mph is roughly 1.6 billion dollars. A number of states surrounding Ohio requested money for establishing high speed rail, and Ohio received the most for start up service:

  • Indiana
    • Requested: $2.8 billion
    • Received: $71.4 million
    • 2.5% of requested
  • Michigan
    • Requested: $1.8 billion
    • Received: $40 million
    • 2.2% of requested
  • New York
    • Requested: $11.6 billion
    • Received: $151 million
    • 1.3% of requested
  • Pennsylvania
    • Requested: $6.65 billion
    • Received: $27 million
    • 0.4% of requested
  • Ohio
    • Requested: $564 million
    • Received: $400 million
    • 70% of requested

The proposed rail subsidy for the 3C quick start project is roughly $17 million per year – basically, after all the fares, advertising, concession sales, and other revenue sources are taken into account, the start up service will face a gap of $17 million per year. To be sure, any additional expense for a state facing dire deficits and future service cuts can be difficult to justify. In Ohio's case, funding for 80% of the $17 million would be covered by federal grants for the first 3 years, leaving the state with 20% of the burden or around $3 million, for which a number of sources have been identified.

If the subsidy is the real issue, then we should evaluate subsidies across all transportation modes – including roads.

In 2008, the Texas Department of Transportation developed a methodology to assess the true cost of road construction and maintenance over a 40 year typical road lifespan. Although TxDOT did not apply the methodology to all roads in the state, TxDOT found that no roadway analyzed ever paid for itself in user fees or gas taxes. Roads analyzed required a subsidy of between 55% to 85% of the cost to construct and operate the road for a 40 year useful life.

Perhaps the Ohio Department of Transportation will create a similar methodology and apply it to study roadway construction and maintenance costs in Ohio.

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