Investing in freight rail could help curb climate change
In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 83 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation’s carbon emission by 39 percent and oil consumption by 15 percent. By moderating the growing cost of logistics, it would also leave the nation’s economy 10 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.
There’s more over at Reihan Salam’s digs, where he goes into some detail on a new Economist report on the logistical tension between freight and passenger rail investment, but I wanted to focus on the above passage for a moment.
Developing the infrastructure of the future strikes me as a much better idea than crafting legislation which would, in an effort to curb carbon emissions, create a vast, expensive and easily captured trading system for carbon (cap and trade). While the focus has largely been on creating new high-speed rail for passengers, investing in freight rail may be even more important. As fuel costs continue to rise in the coming decades, the cost of goods will be dramatically effected by the increased shipping costs. Laying the rail necessary to improve our freight rail lines would drastically improve our logistical prospects for future generations.
Furthermore, many of the nation’s roads are already overcrowded, and some are becoming dangerously so, a state of affairs exacerbated by the volume trucks on the road. This creates an immediate burden on local infrastructure across the nation that could be alleviated to some degree by increased rail capacity.
Nor are we simply talking about the rail lines themselves. More investment in rail spurs is also necessary if more and more freight is going to start moving this way, as well as technological investments. Many of these investments will need to come from the private sector, but modernizing and expanding the railways themselves can be a smart way to use public dollars to free up rail companies to invest in other areas.
A combination of increased freight and passenger rail makes sense to me in the long haul – certainly as a way to combat climate change, this is a much smarter move than cap and trade since it would use tax dollars to actually create something. America is a big country, and to keep our economy running at full steam, public investment in infrastructure is perhaps one of the best places to spend.
Reihan is concerned that an increased investment in passenger and freight rail capacity would create an unnecessarily high tax burden. This may be true. If I had to pick, at this point I’d say that freight – which is already largely in place – is the right place to start. But I’m a supporter of passenger rail as well. It may not make a huge amount of sense now, but I do see gas prices topping four and five dollars in the not-too-distant future, and as we move in that direction, it wouldn’t hurt to anticipate some of the new infrastructure needs our economy will face as more people turn toward public transportation.
Yes, teleconferencing and the internet can make many workplaces ‘virtual’ and can keep many commuters off the road entirely, but much of the future’s service economy will be unable to telecommute. For much of the economy, driving to work – or taking the bus or train – will still be necessary.