Rails versus roads: Infrastructure equality can work wonders

Right now I’m thinking about the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. As I see it the “Report Card” is an evaluation instrument used for the purpose of assessing 16 different infrastructure categories in all. In my way of thinking, chief among the 16 infrastructure groups are roads, railroads, transit and pipelines. Where goods movement and the traveling public are concerned, roads and rails rule. But even so, the disparity between the two is huge.

Case in point: In the United States, there are 4 million lane-miles of roadway. Rail route-mileage, meanwhile, totals 140,000.

TrainNow, think about it: 4 million roadway lane-miles versus 140,000 railway route-miles. Please be aware that while all of those 140,000 route-miles of railroad track are utilized for the purpose of moving freight, some also serves as the platform for moving passengers. As for roadway infrastructure, here, too, there is much that is shared passenger and goods movement-wise.

Interesting to note is that the ASCE gave American roadway infrastructure in 2013 a grade of D while American railway infrastructure earned a C+. Okay: 4 million roadway lane-miles and a grade of D while the 140,000 railway route-miles received a C+. So now I’m thinking: why the difference? Just so you are aware, bridges were evaluated separately.

I realize that just to maintain 4 million lane-miles of road is no small task, a task that requires money and the means – equipment, labor and materials, in other words. Likewise, to maintain rail infrastructure, it is more of the same. But if all things were equal, which they are not, the presumption would be that for railway and roadway infrastructure it would be six of one, half a dozen of the other. Truth is, that’s not the case and here is at least one reason why.

Whereas the two disparate modes (rails and roads) are not on equal footing in that the railroad industry by and large is responsible for its own infrastructure improvement work and paid for mostly by guess who? – the railroad industry, roadway improvement work, on the other hand, is, for the most part, taxpayer subsidized.

Two modes juxtaposed

Being that the railway industry by and large provides the funds for its own upkeep, and being that railway infrastructure appears to be in much better shape compared to roadway infrastructure, at least based on American Society of Civil Engineers analysis anyway, I just don’t see there being a downside in having more railway infrastructure in this country than what currently exists. If this were the case, this wouldn’t necessarily mean less in the way of roadway infrastructure. And with more of the former and greater reliance on railways versus roadways, there is the likelihood there would be less in the way of roadway vehicle exhaust emissions and that means cleaner air.

In case you haven’t guessed, what I’m suggesting is infrastructure equality or a better balance in infrastructure, in other words.

Maybe unbeknownst to me, it just might be America is already onboard.

– Alan Kandel