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A tale of two tunnels

Two events of the past week perfectly illustrate the contrasting circumstances of public transportation in the United States and in the rest of the industrialized world. In Switzerland, authorities opened the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel, while just 40 miles south of Baltimore, officials launched a year-long "SafeTrack" program to repair the badly-neglected Metrorail subway system that runs underneath the nation's capital.

While the Swiss have cleared the way for high-speed rail under the formidable obstacles of the Alps, Metro will be closing tracks and stations and creating substantial delays for the commuters dependent on the country's second largest subway system just to make it safe. Switzerland invested $17 billion in the 35-mile-long Gotthard Base Tunnel; SafeTrack is expected to cost $60 million (not counting an anticipated drop in fare revenue) to perform such neglected duties as cleaning storm drains and replacing electrical insulators.

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And don't for a minute believe this is just a problem for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Public transit systems are feeling the neglect elsewhere, too, including in Baltimore's 15.5-mile-long Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital line where union officials recently complained that Metro subway tunnels and stations are filled with rats and trash. The union protest was dismissed by Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman as a "publicity stunt," but regular riders back up the employee complaints.

Gov. Larry Hogan drew much ire from Baltimore commuters when he cut off funding for the Red Line, but the failure to invest sufficiently in public transit predates him. The American Public Transportation Association has described it as a national problem that dates back decades. Currently, the Federal Transit Administration estimates an $86 billion backlog in deferred maintenance and replacement needs not unlike what's going on in Washington. And it's not just rail — in many places, the bus fleet is aging with 40 percent considered to be in "marginal" or "poor" condition.

Yet there is no shortage of demand for transit. Ridership has increased by more than one-third since 1995, which only compounds the problem with too many people squeezing into too few trains and buses. Numerous polls show Americans want more transit options and that's particularly true of young people.

A project like the tunnel linking Zurich and Milan first conceived 70 years ago doesn't happen on a lark. It took vision to recognize that shaving one hour from a four-hour trip would have substantial long term benefits for the entire European Union. It will greatly increase the line's capacity for both passenger and freight traffic linking Southern Europe with Rotterdam, the region's busiest port. By comparison, U.S. high-speed rail efforts have been a strictly half-hearted effort with the crown jewel, Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, consistently outshone by its counterparts in France, Germany, Italy, Japan and China.

Yet Congress remains unwilling to commit sufficient resources to address U.S. infrastructure needs, including transportation. The failure to raise the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon, where it's been stuck since 1993, or to find an alternative means to finance the nation's growing highway, bridge and transit needs is at the heart of the problem. But it also doesn't help that the U.S. continues to subsidize the burning of fossil fuels by not demanding producers, distributors and users cover the true cost of the resulting air pollution, both in human health and environmental harm.

No doubt some Marylanders will bemoan the latest inflation-pacing increase in the state's fuel tax — all of nine-tenths of 1 cent — authorized by a 2013 law. The higher tax will go into effect on July 1 but will probably be little noticed by the majority of drivers given that gasoline prices fluctuate by more than ten times that amount in any given month. And that's not even comparing it to the price of gasoline back on July 17, 2008 when the average motorist paid $4.11 per gallon, according to AAA.

Addressing neglected U.S. infrastructure ought to be a high priority of the presumed presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both have indicated varying levels of support for greater, if still insufficient, levels of investment. High-speed rail isn't necessarily the answer for every community, but a Swiss-like level of commitment to the transportation backlog is absolutely required. Otherwise what's happening in Washington will be commonplace with the U.S. economy suffering under traffic gridlock that could have been prevented.

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