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Americans have been driving less, by choice or necessity. They need the option to take the train.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Freedom to hit the open road has been a part of the American ethos since European settlers started pushing westward. But by early in the last century, when Henry Ford began mass producing cars affordable to assembly line workers, having wheels had become ever more essential to a way of life.
Until, perhaps, now.
Government statisticians reported last month that Americans collectively have been driving fewer miles since a peak six years ago. The drop could be a blip, reflecting economic hardships that started with the Great Recession of 2007.
Or a sharp drop that year might have signaled the beginning of a trend.
If so, Virginia’s newly passed transportation legislation will prove to be truly enlightened in dedicating a portion of the state sales tax to intercity rail. That puts the state ahead of 18 others that must start sharing costs with Amtrak to continue regional service.
And it puts the Old Dominion on-track to build a truly integrated statewide transportation system for people, connecting the Golden Crescent to rural Southwest. In just a few years, Roanoke expects the return of passenger service to a city that grew from a railroad town.
Demand became evident by ridership on a connector bus to Lynchburg, where Amtrak service to Richmond, Washington, D.C., and points north blew past the rail line’s rosiest projections. When the train rolls into Roanoke, it will bring that much closer to reality long-held dreams of a TransDominion Express from Northern Virginia to Bristol and eventually Atlanta.
Supporters should be re-energized, and push policy makers forward.
Recent patterns show that train advocates have gauged the public mood right in pressing for rail options that will let travelers avoid driving mid-distances, for which air travel is neither practical nor affordable. White-knuckled driving sandwiched between tractor-trailers on congested interstates is no one’s idea of personal freedom.
The revival of passenger rail will not come on a wave of nostalgia, but of recognition that highways, while essential, cannot expand indefinitely. And Americans can give up their car keys.
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