Environmental and Economic Impacts of Rail Investment

Here is the second part of the report of my trip to Washington DC and Boston, Mass. These are some facts I learned about the environmental and economic benefits of passenger rail. The information may not surprise us but this is good to know. We need facts and evidence to answer our critics opposition to mass transit, especially rail. So let’s arm ourselves with new knowledge. 

Also at our ORBTS meeting this weekend someone asked who are our audience is. My answer is citizens and voters. I know we need to talk to “stakeholders” but we must do that with the mass of citizens at our back. Plus I think most of the stakeholders know what they need. Instead of having infrastructure development happen to the population of NWA, I want the citizen/voters to drive the conversation on development and innovation. This will lead to the best outcome for us. So we are here to learn, then inform our family, friends, and neighbors.  

Environmental benefits are at the top of my list of benefits of passenger rail. The majority, about 1/3rd, of greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation in all forms. From airlines, to tractor-trailer rigs, to ocean spanning container ships, to our cars, pick ups, and motorcycles. If we are to reduce greenhouse gases, we must address transportation. Here are the direct benefits of passenger train travel for our environment. 

Before my trip I bought my tickets for the Acela ride online using the Amtrak app. You can find the link here. 


When I bought my Acela tickets Amtrak sent an email stating that my riding the Acela from Washington DC to Boston will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75% over an airline. 87% over driving a car. 

When we build railroads we use less land than a highway or an interstate. In fact it is possible to use the median on the interstate highway to build a high speed railroad. This solves most of the Right of Way hurtles and keeps the negative environmental impacts down. 

For more information here is the RPA report on Energy and climate solutions: 

The economic benefits of train travel are abundant. Arkansas suffers from crashing poverty in most of our state. Many rural communities have median incomes of less than $10,000 a year. In the last 10 years it is not surprising that many Arkansans left their homes and moved either out of state or to NWA. If this tread continues, we will see vast sections of Arkansas become food and pharmacy deserts just like in Detroit Michigan but covering thousands of square miles.  

At the RPA meeting I heard from the Chief Executive of the Federal Railroad Administration that to get money from the Infrastructure Act (TIIJA) the state’s Governor must file a request with the FRA. We need our Governor to file a plan so we can get money for commuter rail, interstate passenger rail, and possibly light rail. A Big Picture Rail Plan will be a comprehensive infrastructure plan for building, upgrading, and repairing railroads across the state. This is for freight rail, shared tracks with passenger and freight, and dedicated high speed passenger rail. As I’ve stated before, a statewide railroad plan will put many people to work with good paying jobs in the $60 K to $100K range. Including in areas most deeply hurt by persistent poverty. 

I participated in a workshop where I created a campaign to get such a Big Picture Rail Plan passed. It involves the things we talked about in the past. A Letter to the Editor Campaign to get our ideas out to the public. Getting the mayors to advocate for us with the Governor to put such a plan together. We will need to pack the room in any ARDot Rail planning meetings. 

In Arkansas our passenger rail service is Amtrak Texas Eagle which is once a day each way. The Little Rock Amtrak station is a very lonely place to visit. The good news is doubling the trains in a day will increase boardings/ridership exponentially. So if we doubled the trips of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle from once a day to twice we could triple or quadruple ridership. The reasoning here is with more frequency more riders will use the train to make more trips. Some will use it to commute so they are not just riding out of the station but back in as well. If we use the Amtrak station for other passenger rail services this will once again exponentially increase the census of riders coming and going around the station. 

Busy rail stations increase property value many times.  That’s because building passenger rail will in itself create density in terms of population, retail activity, and employment. So naturally an active and busy train station will bring in all kinds of real estate development. 

The Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) is an Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. An Interstate Compact like this is useful for giving local control of a regional passenger rail route that is not going to come under the authority of Amtrak. The State of Indiana’s DOT Rail Office published a pamphlet on the economic benefits of the MWRRS. They list the potential property value increases for the areas around multimodal stations. In Indianapolis they are looking at increases of $121 – $182 millions dollars. While rising residential costs are a concern here in NWA, an increase in commercial real estate can be a boon. The owners of the property can leverage the added value for loans for business expansion and improvement. And rising property values are attractive to investors in a Public Private Partnership.  

Here is a RPA report on the economic effects of investing in passenger railroads. 

Also the new jobs created for construction and with the railroads companies will bring around 4.5 times increases in employment. That is for every job created 4.5 more jobs are created in the economy. In terms of economic return per dollar spent. If we spend $1 billion, we will get $7 billion in economic return (see below). 

Two other thoughts here. One, some say that we can’t justify rail development to benefit rural Arkansans. I counter that by asserting that rural folks benefit greatly from passenger rail service. They need to commute just like urban folks. Two, remember that highways don’t generate money, employ people, or pay taxes. Railroad companies do all three. 

By developing passenger rail, and all railroad service in Arkansas, we will spend less than on highways. Get much more out of our money in terms of economic return. And revitalize our state economically. This isn’t going to be a rail renaissance, it is an economic renaissance. To top it all off it can help Arkansas become carbon neutral in a few years. The time for action is now. 

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