Posts Tagged ‘NIMBYs’

Can NIMBYs Kill the Hiawatha Expansion?

February 10, 2017

If Amtrak had just put on the three additional Hiawatha Service roundtrips that Illinois and Wisconsin want, no one except passengers and rail passenger advocates would have been the wiser.

But the proposed expansion of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service isn’t going to work that way and as a result there has been a NIMBY uprising in suburban Chicago that threatens to scuttle the expansion.

Hiawatha 2The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation, which fund the existing service, want to expand the number of Chicago-Milwaukee trains from seven to 10.

As part of that expansion, a holding track for Canadian Pacific freight trains would be built in suburban Chicago.

Because public money is involved an environmental assessment, which examines various facets of the proposed expansion, was conducted.

Once that became public last October, the NIMBY opposition began, citing the usual arguments that opponents of new or expanded rail passenger service make everywhere, e.g., noise, pollution, increased traffic congestion, vibration and diminished property values.

What makes the suburban Chicago dispute different is that it involves a rail line that already has a high level of passenger service.

It is likely that many of the NIMBYs are regular or occasional Metra users. The property owners along the Chicago-Milwaukee route are accustomed to train traffic passing their neighborhoods. They may not like it, but they know they can’t stop it.

The news media coverage largely has failed to explain the particulars of why the holding track is part of the expansion plan. It is the result of operating constraints affecting three railroads and ordinary people don’t have much interest in such matters.

Freight trains bound for CP’s Bensenville Yard near Chicago O’Hare International Airport sometimes hold on the mainline north of Rondout in Lake Forest as they wait for permission to enter in Northbrook a Union Pacific route that CP trains use to access Bensenville Yard.

As early as 2007, WisDOT began studying traffic patterns on the Chicago-Milwaukee Route in preparation for expanded Hiawatha Service.

Computer modeling exercises and meetings of operating officials of the three railroads using the corridor – Amtrak, CP and Metra – identified choke points and operating challenges.

The proposed capital improvements that came out of those meetings – including the holding track – were designed to minimize the need for trains of all three railroads to wait on the mainline for other traffic to clear.

The holding track was a way of shifting where CP freights would sit as they waited for the UP to give permission to enter its territory.

Had the railroads agreed to host the expanded Hiawatha Service within the existing infrastructure, the NIMBY opposition would never have materialized because they would not have noticed the increase in Amtrak traffic.

The NIMBYs want the FRA to order that a full environmental impact statement be conducted, probably in the hope that it will confirm their point of view. They also are playing for time, hoping that the holding track idea will go away or that the railroads will build it somewhere else.

Some of the public officials who have jumped on the NIMBY train might be playing for federal and state money to make infrastructure improvements their cities could not afford otherwise.

In the end the Hiawatha expansion may never come about, but not necessarily because of the NIMBYs.

Additional passenger equipment is needed and it is unclear when that will become available. The new locomotives expected to be used on Amtrak Midwest corridor routes are being built, but new passenger cars have been delayed and there is a looming September deadline to spend the federal grant awarded to pay for those cars.

It also is unclear if Illinois and Wisconsin are committed to paying the operating costs of the additional Hiawathas. Keeping the funding level high enough to afford the existing corridor service of the two states is a challenge as it is.

Many of the arguments being made by the NIMBYs are unsubstantiated and emotionally overwrought. The FRA won’t take those seriously.

And some of the opposition by public officials is opportunistic. It doesn’t cost them to side with the NIMBYs and might gain them a few political brownie points. The FRA knows that, too.

What remains to be seen is whether this political posturing eventually will result in the political clout that could be brought to bear to kill the public funding needed to pay for the expanded service. This risk is just one of the prices today, of intercity passenger service.

In Love With the Concept of Trains

March 13, 2009

Intercity passenger trains are being talked about a lot in the public square these days thanks to the $8 billion allocated by the economic stimulus bill toward the development of high-speed rail. Newspaper editorials and pundits of every kind have been hailing high-speed rail.

Sure, there have been a few dissenting points of view. There always are and always will be. Not everyone loves trains or is convinced of their value as a means of transportation. But mainly the critics are focusing on the price tag of developing a high-speed rail system. It’s a legitimate concern and should be talked about. What are we getting for all of that money and do we need it?

Supporters cite rising congestion of the nation’s highways and airways. Long-time passenger train advocates like to talk about the need for a balanced transportation system. Inevitably they make comparisons between the United States, which has very little high-
speed rail, and Western Europe and Japan, which not only have plenty of it, but have systems that are reliable and operate with a high level of service.

Yet if you read the editorials carefully, listen to the speeches, and think about what people are saying about high-speed rail, it become apparent that they are in love with the concept with rail passenger service without having much knowledge of what it will take to make those dreams a reality. This is true with President Barack Obama, who sees development of high-speed rail as a legacy to leave behind after he leaves office. Like so many others, Obama sees the type of high-speed rail systems that exist elsewhere and wonders why the United States can’t have that.

The short answer is that this country could have that type of rail service. Yet it is doubtful that Obama or the pundits, or the editorial writers or even many rail passenger advocates comprehend what it will take to translate love of the concept of passenger rail into a
concrete system complete with trains, stations and high-speed tracks. Yes, they say they know it will be expensive. But do they understand how expensive?

Everyone says that a high-speed route ought to link Chicago and Indianapolis. But it is one thing to say this route is a natural and another to make it happen. Amtrak trains between the two cities now follow a slow, zig-zag route that involves five railroads. The scheduled travel time between Indy and Chicago is five hours.

 It may not be practical to upgrade this route for 100-mph operation or even 90-mph speeds. Another route likely would need to be created. Imagine the NIMBY opposition that is sure to come when plans are announced to put down tracks where there are none now. Imagine the outrage from some when they see the millions, even billions, it will take to cut a couple of hours off the travel time between the two cities.

Most policymakers understand that European-style high-speed rail systems will require dedicated tracks that will be very expensive to build. It remains to be seen whether policymakers have the political will to support the appropriations bills needed to pay for those tracks and the legal battles that NIMBYs are sure to launch to stop them. Those numbers are sure to make Obama and other lawmakers recoil in horror.

At some point, policymakers in France, England, Spain, Germany and Japan, among other countries, must have had similar moments. Development of the European and Japanese systems began decades ago when construction costs were lower, but the costs still must have been relatively high. What convinced them to press ahead? Is the political culture of Europe and Japan that much different from the United States when it comes to transportation development? Yes, it is.

Thus, step one is going to be transforming the political culture in this country. That means having to engage in a long fight. Rail passenger advocates have been urging such a cultural transformation for years, but sympathetic lawmakers have been unwilling to engage in much more than a battle of words. In that battle, everyone says they love
passenger trains. But few are willing to pay for them.

In the movie Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee is portrayed as discussing with General James Longstreet the cost of war. It was on the second day of battle and Lee understood that his army was going to suffer heavy casualties.

“The soldier has one great trap,” Lee told Longstreet. “To be a good solider you must love the Army. To be a good commander you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. We do not fear our own deaths, you and I, but there comes a time when we are not prepared for so many to die … We are prepared to lose some of us but we are never prepared to lose all of us – and there is the great trap. When you attack, you must hold nothing back. You must commit yourself totally.”

The Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg and subsequently the war, but Lee’s point was still valid. If he wanted to win a battle and ultimately win a war, he needed to look past the inevitable human suffering and misery. It wasn’t that Lee was callous. He just understood the cost of winning did not come easily.

No one is going to lose their life or suffer a debilitating injury in the struggle to bring about better intercity rail passenger service. But make no mistake that it is going to be a struggle, a long struggle.

No one likes to talk about it, but the cost of building a high-speed rail system in this country is going to be lost opportunities to do something else with that money. Many rail advocates might say, “it’s about time” and cite how many billions federal and state governments have spent building highways and airport runways. Fair enough, but the lawmakers who vote on spending bills don’t look at it that way. Nor will the pundits and editorial writers now calling for high-speed rail systems in this country. Those same folks at some point are going to rail against the cost of rail.

The stimulus package was at best a down payment. Much higher bills lie down the road, which is one reason why lawmakers have dodged the cost of rail development for so long. Lawmakers say they favor better rail systems, but will they still be in love with rail when they learn its cost? It is easy to be in love with the concept of better intercity railroad passenger systems. But if this country is going to have better intercity railroad passenger systems, it is going to take money, yes, but first it will take commitment. How many love affairs have fallen apart when commitment time came?