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."

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