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US rail lines are in need of an upgrade. Here’s how to do it and create American jobs too

Congratulations to The Kansas City Star for “Collision Course,” its recent investigation into our nation’s railroad safety issues. I urge the newspaper to pursue related issues which, in my opinion, are fixable.

American railroad rights-of-way should be acquired, maintained, and improved by the federal government. In 1956, the nation’s highways were in abominable condition. There were only a small number of highways that met interstate standards and none in Missouri. Most highways carried low volumes of traffic caused by at-grade crossings, traffic lights, stop signs, or other deterrents to efficient traffic flow.

But that year, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, was passed, which raised the federal fuel tax from 2 to 3 percent to pay for the construction of a 41,000-mile system, which it was built in a relatively short period of time.

Today, our interstate highway system is far from perfect, but I consider it the largest public investment in our country’s history. Now, compare that to the rights of way of the nations railroads.

Railroads do a good job of making sure improvements are made that will improve profitability or reduce costs. And the result is a uniformly dirty and dangerous functional system, as well documented in The Star project. Railroad company lines are, by and large, linear slums that run through every city and most of the country. Maintaining the look of these lines seems to be a non-existent priority among owners. Their lines do nothing to encourage the owners of the properties they manage to improve conditions.

I would urge The Star to encourage Congress to get rough estimates on what it would cost:

Use eminent domain to acquire every railroad line in all 50 states.

Eliminate all road-rail crossings.

Improve landscapes around rail lines to meet interstate standards.

Establish a quality maintenance program.

Replace all diesel trains with electric trains.

Lawmakers would then have to determine whether the United States could issue income bonds as needed to accomplish all of the above.

I would not recommend a federal attempt to buy private railroads. Conversely, the railways would appear to be the best candidates to provide the maintenance services as a tendered contractor.

This idea only makes sense if it can be done with sureties, with railroad taxes paying for debt service and maintenance. First, this must be achieved without tax increases. Second, it cannot cut jobs. In fact, it should do the opposite by significantly increasing the number of good-paying jobs in the rail sector.

A total improvement to America’s railroad infrastructure would be a significant and worthy investment for our nation, one that could provide both greater safety for all travelers and economic opportunity for workers.

Dick Davis served as general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority from 1977 to 2000.

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