A while back I wrote a post on how the federal government should buy up the rights of way used by Amtrak and expand them. My feelings about that goal haven't changed. But I thought that a specific point merits qualification. As one of my fellow travelers reminded me when I took Amtrak from New York to Portland last month, this isn't just a matter of money. Companies like Burlington Northern are understandingly unwilling to hand over their rights of way for the simple and understandable reason that they don't trust Amtrak to maintain them. And if they're not maintained, all that revenue from freight transit goes away. This isn't just about the goverment ponying up cash. It's not even about eminent domain issues, though, admittedly, those both merit discussion another time.
Fundamentally, this is about the condition of those rights of way. The condition of the trackbed. The capacity of the switches. The standards that can be counted on in keeping those lines clear and functional.
So let me clarify a bit. I still feel that the federal government should take this time of flux to take over the rights of way used by or suited to use by passenger rail. But I think that it's crucial to point out that any such deal would have to include detailed provisions by the government, with penalty provisions for non-compliance and institution of transparent management procedures, that commit the resulting authority to expand the capacity of the lines and then maintain them at that expanded capacity.
In fact, I increasingly wonder if the smart thing to do might be to contract with the current owners to handle making most of those necessary upgrades before the handoff takes place. And with those terms tied to compliance. We know that, in theory, the freight rail companies want the resulting lines upgraded; we just need to get them to do the work done soon, in ways that suit expanded capacity and passenger rail as well.
And, crucially, the freight rail companies have the typical culture of oligopolists. As I've documented in my Flickr sets, these are not firms that judge success by normal standards of efficiency. So writing the contracts and managing the resulting situation would be, admittedly, seriously non-trival.
To put it another way, this isn't a job for a Robert Moses. It's a job for a Lyndon Johnson. For a savvy and cynical master of back room negotiation with a deep understanding of whose interests are best served how and what will motivate whom to make things better and the brass to get the contracts signed.
Of course, in theory, the above description just about perfectly matches the stereotype of a Chicago politician. Haven't we got one of those as President at the moment?
Which takes us back to what more and more of us are saying more and more frequently. If he's going to get the right things done, Barack Obama needs to spend less time trying to be an elegant statesman and more time channelling some ethical combination of Huey Long and Joe Kennedy.
Maybe we can get him to start drinking with Charlie Rangel.