Oregonian distorts high-speed rail debate

The headline in the article promises so much: “Oregon bids for high-speed rail between Portland and Eugene.”

Whoohoo! Rail travel! High-speed! Read a book! Work on your laptop! Take a nap! Avoid getting killed by people texting while driving!

Don’t get stuck in traffic because people over-consuming at the Woodburn outlet mall have created a traffic jam. And on. And on. And on.

Why else is this a good thing? Because people make something like 40,000 car trips A day between Salem and Portland alone. Think of all the time and emissions you could save by putting them on a train!

But wait: it’s Harry Esteve of the Oregonian who’s writing the article, and he’s a biased Neanderthal.

So how does he twist things this time? Here’s the “pro” side of his article:

Passenger trains suffered a steep decline in popularity in the United States with the onset of freeways and affordable cars. But they still have their champions, such as Kulongoski, who think they offer a cost-effective alternative to steadily increasing congestion along the major thoroughfares.

Here’s the “con” side:

Critics say the romantic image of train travel clouds the reality of modern transportation choices. Spending more tax money to prop up an already heavily subsidized system will only add to public concerns about waste in government, says John Charles, president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland.

“There is almost no metric by which this makes sense,” says Charles, who has spent years studying Oregon transportation issues. Trains serve “a tiny passenger base to the point of irrelevancy,” he says.

The smarter way to go is to spend tax money improving systems used most heavily by travelers, such as the interstate highway system and even motor coaches, which are more versatile than trains, he says. Charles acknowledges that train travel is enjoyable — he takes Amtrak to Seattle when he can.

But, he says, “for the vast majority of trips, fixed rail doesn’t take people from where they are to where they ultimately want to be.”

Notice anything?

First, the “pro” side is basically once sentence, or 24 words. Even when you don’t count the “Charles acknowledges” sentence, the “con” is 143 words … about six times as long.

Second, rail transit is described as “an already heavily subsidized system.” But according to the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA), 92% of the funds for local roads (the ones where people ride bikes the most) come from property, income, and sales taxes — which everyone pays for. It’s hard to get more heavily subsidized than that.

A May 2008 study by UC Davis’ Institute for Transportation Studies estimated that; “the total ‘tax subsidy’ to motor-vehicle users in the US may be in the range of $19–64 billion per year, or $0.11–0.37 per gallon of motor fuel.” (editorial on BikePortland.org)

Third, let’s look at that Harry’s seemingly blithe comment, “Passenger trains suffered a steep decline in popularity in the United States with the onset of freeways and affordable cars.”

How did that “steep decline” happen? Streetsblog explains:

Oh. Right, “the onset of freeways” is actually because of MASSIVE GOVERNMENT SPENDING. What do you call such huge spending? Streetsblog calls it “the last bastion of socialism in America.”

When people lament the decline of newspapers, I half-agree. It also means that people with an axe to grind will no longer get to sit in privileged positions. Yes, I’m talking about you, harryesteve@oregonian.news.com