Believe it or not, but Amtrak is the most energy-efficient form of motorized transportation available in the United States, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory report released this summer. Indeed, the comparison isn't really all that close, with passenger rail beating out the nation's cars, trucks and airlines handily.

That fuel efficiency, and the fact that Amtrak and other forms of rail transportation also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, don't often get the attention they deserve. The more the U.S. can encourage people to switch from cars, trucks and even jetliners to rail travel, the better off we will be in reducing pollution, addressing climate change, conserving finite petroleum resources and keeping the country on a sustainable path.


Those are just a few of the reasons why the recent announcement by Gov. Martin O'Malley that Maryland is poised to invest a substantial amount of money in rail should be regarded as good news. The Baltimore region will be one of the biggest beneficiaries, with $1.5 billion pledged for the Red Line, the east-west light rail line that will eventually run from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

But that's not all. The MARC rail commuter system will be adding weekend service between Washington and Baltimore in December. That's a huge boost for rail commuting, particularly for those who live in Baltimore and work in the District (or vice versa). And there's money to replace aging Metro subway cars and help cover the annual operating costs of the city's highly successful Charm City Circulator.

The General Assembly's willingness to raise the gas tax this year is the reason why these projects, as well as many road construction, port and airport improvements, are moving forward. So far, that tax increase is barely noticeable (the average cost of a gallon of unleaded in the Baltimore region was $3.49 a gallon this week, or six cents below the national average, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic) while these upgrades could be transformative.

And while investment in transportation infrastructure of all kinds is badly needed if Maryland is going to compete in the global economy, the administration's desire to invest so much in public transportation is especially noteworthy. Maryland commuters can't continue to be as car-dependent as they have been in the past. They need to have alternatives available.

Think it's too much to expect commuters to abandon their gas-guzzlers? It's already happening. As a recent study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund points out, people aren't driving as much. Per-capita vehicle miles traveled (the best measure of how much the roads are used) has gone down over the last half-decade, while the alternatives, such as biking, walking and transit use, are up.

Baltimore's main problem has been its fitful experience with transit — a subway with just one line, a poorly executed light rail system, and bus service that's often taken for granted, all of it managed by a state agency. Surely, nobody would have ever designed such a haphazard, inconvenient and undercapitalized system that lacks sufficient accountability to its customers (or even local government) from scratch.

The Red Line could substantially change that outlook. Baltimore's east-west commuters don't have the option of taking a Jones Falls Expressway to work, as do many who live near the Central Light Rail Line. The demand for light rail in the corridor should be higher, and the project's execution (with the benefit of long-term planning, more modern technology and federal participation) should be better, too.

But it also shouldn't end there. Baltimore needs a vision for a better-integrated transit future as well as a plan to finance it. And we need to encourage growth around transit stations and stops. Such transit-oriented development is critical to the city's future if it is to be a convenient and desirable place to live and work.

That's not to predict the demise of the automobile. It will remain the primary mode of transportation in this country for the foreseeable future. But from young people who are putting off acquiring driver's licenses in record numbers to seniors who are living longer but aren't necessarily capable of driving, people are going to need better alternatives.

Under those circumstances, it's not hard to see how Governor O'Malley could endorse investing so much in the modes of transportation that are the least polluting and most energy efficient. Giving rail transit such a high priority isn't an abandonment of motorists but a vision of a better future.