OpEd

Story published: 12-11-2012 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Return rail service for people, climate

By Frances Lamberts

“Take a serious look at reviving passenger rail,” the Bristol Herald Courier headlined an editorial in July.

A sold-out excursion train (at $80-$125 per person) through Southwest Virginia was the occasion and “crowds gathered to see [it] at its various stops” further attested to the attraction and wide support that rail-based mobility holds in our region.

Enthusiasm for return of trains was amply evident at a recent meeting of Rail Solution, a citizen advocacy group.

“If there were passenger service, I would use it for daily commuting,” said one attendee.

“If there were trains, I could visit my children in Washington, D.C.,” another stated.

“We see global-warming damage occurring around us,” said another of many speakers. “Switching to rail would let us reduce our carbon footprint from traveling.”

Rail Solution arose a decade ago in response to proposed widening — to an 8-to-12 lane super highway — of Interstate 81 in Virginia, to accommodate increased traffic.

Largely funded through toll charges, toll fees under this plan would have amounted to $130 for automobile travel across the state.

The citizen group proposed, instead, the re-establishment and modernization of a network of intercity rail, mostly along (and via upgrading) existing railroad freight lines.

In 2009, some 50 municipalities in Virginia and Tennessee, including Jonesborough and Washington County, petitioned the Congress for funding to establish modern rail service, in lieu of widening of I-81.

The plan envisioned the rail system to span the most heavily traveled I-81 and Interstate 40 section from Harrisburg to Knoxville. It has since been expanded to reach to Memphis.

The economic stimulus bill of 2009 provided an important, if one-time, funding boost of $8 billion for high speed rail infrastructure nationally.

A provision in the 2012 federal transportation bill (MAP 21) allows states to opt for intermodal rail investments if, in a major freight corridor, the return to taxpayers will be better than a highway project.

In the view of the citizens expressing their dreams and hopes for rail, a modern intermodal system moving freight and passengers, or a “Steel Interstate” is “safer, cheaper, healthier, greener, and better for business” than the transportation system, largely automobile based, currently available in our region.

Various analyses presented by the Rail Solution group seem to confirm these claims.

For slowing climate change, especially, turning a good portion of freight and vehicular traffic to rail has striking advantages.

Transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Accelerating, they accounted for almost half of the increase in U.S. emissions during the 1990 to 2007 time frame.

Tennessee Department of Transportation figures show transportation’s GHG contribution in Tennessee to be even greater: their emissions growth vastly outstrips that in all other economic sectors, combined.

Were the nationally proposed “Steel Interstate” system built, powered by renewable-energy electricity, GHG emissions would fall nearly 40 percent, a Millennium Institute study concludes.

For the good news: off-the-shelf technology, a Homeland Security Department website notes, could accomplish much of it, now.

Area citizens, and efforts to restore climate stability, would gain a lot.