Let’s start with the small-scale stuff that needs doing. There are many examples around the country where a relatively tiny amount of public investment in rail infrastructure would bring enormous social and economic returns. Why is I-95 so congested with truck traffic that drivers divert to I-81 and overwhelm that interstate as well? One big reason is that railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line. In 2007, it submitted a detailed plan to the U.S. Department of Transportation to build a steel wheel interstate from Washington to
Miami, but no federal funding has been forthcoming.
The Howard Street Tunnel is the worst of some seventy rail choke points in the mid-Atlantic region alone. According to a study commissioned by the I-95 Corridor Coalition, a group of transportation officials along the highway’s route, fixing these choke points would cost $6.2 billion and return twice that amount in benefits. The returns would include $2.9 billion in reduced freight transportation costs, $6.3 billion in direct savings due to reduced highway congestion for vehicles still on the road, and $3.7 billion in indirect economic benefits generated throughout the economy by these transportation savings. Importantly, rail capacity can often be improved substantially by relatively low-cost measures such as adding signals, occasional switches, and new, computerized train control devices, whereas with rubber wheel interstates the only way to add capacity is to add lanes. This is another reason why the social rate of return on rail investment is much higher than on most highway projects.
Another notorious set of choke points is in Chicago, America’s rail capital, which is visited by some 1,200 trains a day. Built in the nineteenth century by noncooperating private companies, lines coming from the East still have no or insufficient connections with those coming from the West. Consequently, thousands of containers on their way elsewhere must be unloaded each day, "rubber-wheeled" across the city’s crowded streets by truck, and reloaded onto other trains. It takes forty-eight hours for a container to travel five miles across Chicago, longer than it does to get there from New York. This entire problem could be fixed for just $1.5 billion, with benefits including not just faster shipping times and attendant economic development, but drastically reduced road traffic, energy use, and pollution.And as a companion to another post, if you really wanted to take the analogy of running government like a business seriously, the first thing we should do is borrow all we need to get our infrastructure running to capacity.