The Political Climate That Makes Transportation Reform Run

When House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) recently accused his colleagues of lacking the "political will" to pursue long-term reform of infrastructure policy, he wasn’t simply employing a D.C. rhetorical flourish. To understand what Oberstar meant, let’s travel to Berlin for a moment.

image_17118_panoV9free_eppl.jpgA German-made high-speed rail car. (Photo: Spiegel)

Colby Itkowitz, CQ’s crack transportation reporter, headed to the German capital for a story about the nation’s thriving high-speed rail network — and what the White House can learn as it pursues its own bullet-train vision.

What she found was a political system that funds highways and inter-city rail equally and treats mobility as a "basic right":

The government views access to transportation, no matter one’s social or economic situation, as a "major
basis of prosperity and quality of life," says Engelbert Lutke Daldrup,
state secretary at the German Federal Ministry for Transport, Building
and Urban Affairs. The goal, he says, is that transportation not be a
hindrance in people’s lives. Germany’s 60-year-old constitution
references the "establishment of equal living conditions" as an area
where the government can legislate.

Not that Germany has provided a perfect example of a high-speed rail rollout. Itkowitz found that German lawmakers, much like members of the U.S. Congress, have succumbed to parochial concerns and clashed over putting rail stations in their individual districts. Moreover, the German rail network has not seen "a consistent trend" of development near rail stations, according to CQ’s report.

But compare the German experience to infrastructure policy-making in America, where a sizable contingent of conservatives continues to push for the right to wholly opt out of the federal transportation system. High-speed rail has so far been a bright spot for bipartisanship, attracting legitimate support from both sides of the aisle, but much depends on how effectively the Obama administration distributes its first $8 billion for rail this winter.

CQ articles are normally available only to subscribers, but you can check out Itkowitz’s full report from Berlin after the jump.

Berlin — Across much of Europe, high-speed trains have changed the nature of inter-city travel and made it unnecessary to own a vehicle. To be sure, most people still own cars in Europe, but the key difference from the United States is that they don’t have to.

A standout is Germany, where high-speed rail lines have been up and running for almost two decades and where Siemens, the leading manufacturer of the technology, is headquartered. Unlike some European countries that have invested their resources in a few dedicated high-speed rail corridors between major cities — a model America is likely to emulate — Germany has built a huge network of lines that interconnects the entire country.

The sleek Intercity Express bullet trains, better known as the ICE, speed through the German countryside at more than 150 miles per hour. These trains arrive and depart as scheduled — it is Germany, after all — and the spacious seats have pillow headrests. Separate, enclosed compartments are available stocked with toys like those you’d find in a doctor’s waiting room for families with young children. In the dining cars, tables are covered with white cloths and waiters take orders from a full menu that ranges from snacks to entrees.

Such mobility is considered a basic right in Germany. The government views access to transportation, no matter one’s social or economic situation, as a "major basis of prosperity and quality of life," says Engelbert Lutke Daldrup, state secretary at the German Federal Ministry for Transport, Building and Urban Affairs. The goal, he says, is that transportation not be a hindrance in people’s lives. Germany’s 60-year-old constitution references the "establishment of equal living conditions" as an area where the government can legislate.

Germany’s success in implementing high-speed rail can largely be attributed to this philosophy — one backed by financial and political commitment. Of the 12 billion euros spent annually by the German federal government on transportation, roughly equal amounts are spent on the national rail lines and on highways — which translate to about $5 billion each, according to Daldrup. Compare that with the United States where the federal government invests almost $40 billion annually in roads and about $1.5 billion in Amtrak, the quasi-governmental passenger rail corporation.

To be fair, Germany’s geography is far better suited to a national rail system. The country is slightly smaller than Montana and its major cities — Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg — are within a few hundred miles of one another.

"Here, it is a conscious effort to strengthen railways. It’s about 40 percent railways, 50 percent roads, and that’s a political decision," said Thomas Hailer, managing director of the German Transport Forum. "Germans are still attached to their cars as a status system, but they are also rational. We see a certain saturation, the number of cars per household is stagnating while public transport is still growing."

German environmental priorities also seem different than those of Americans. The country has been a leader in fighting global warming and began working toward reducing its carbon emissions in 1990. Gazing out the window of a high-speed train in Germany one can view farms of wind turbines dotting the landscape. Sascha Nicholai, communications director for the German Railway Industry Association, said it’s very important for Germany to show the world — especially at December’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen — that it supports climate friendly technologies.

"In Germany you have a group of persons asking what kind of transportation is the most ecological," Nicholai said. "It’s typical for the behavior of the German to see the environment is worthy, it has a special value in the German mind."

For these reasons, Germans have been innovative in making rail transport both comfortable and convenient. For example, the German airline, Lufthansa, has partnered with some rail stations to allow air passengers to check in for their flights at the station if they are taking a train to the airport.

Lufthansa also has canceled some of its short-haul flights between cities. When a passenger attempts to book a flight on the airline’s Web site between Frankfurt and Cologne, for instance, which are linked by a dedicated high-speed rail corridor, Lufthansa provides the schedule for the ICE train.

But German transportation experts are quick to point out that developing successful high-speed rail isn’t a simple undertaking. According to Wolfgang Fengler, a university professor specializing in transportation technology, it takes Germany a minimum of 15 years to build a line and more than 30 years before the line turns a profit.

Germany has had political problems with too many lawmakers seeking to place stations in their hometowns. Not only do the added stops slow the fast trains, but there also hasn’t been a consistent trend of regional development at every new station stop.

"It’s not a job to earn a lot of money in a short term to invest in rail," Fengler said. "But it’s good for the society."

  • Andy Singer

    But isn’t Jim Oberstar part of the problem? His proposed reauthorization of TEA has nothing even resembling parity between road and rail funding. T4America and other groups have urged him to make “Reducing VMT” the new standard for obtaining federal funding and to adopt other basic reforms …but he’s refused to add these to his bill. As far as I can tell his bill completely lacks “Long term reform.” Living in Minnesota, I know that Oberstar has this reputation as a champion of alternative transport– primarily because he’s a bicyclist and gets money for “Enhancements” …but is he really that progressive? Or is he ultimately just another Democratic Party highway guy?

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