US railroad lines need an upgrade. Here’s how do it and create American jobs, too | Opinion

LM Otero/Associated Press file photo

Congratulations to The Kansas City Star for “Collision Course,” its recent investigation into safety problems with our nation’s railroads. I would urge the paper to pursue related issues that, in my opinion, are resolvable.

America’s railroad rights-of-way should be acquired, maintained and upgraded by the federal government. In 1956, the nation’s highways were in abominable shape. There was 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 in that year, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, was approved, increasing the federal fuel tax from 2 to 3 percent to pay for the construction of a 41,000 mile system, which was built in a relatively short period of time.

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

Railroads do a good job in making sure that improvements are made that will improve profitability or reduce costs. And the result is a functional system that is uniformly dirty and dangerous, as was well documented in The Star’s project. The rail companies’ lines are, by and large, linear slums that pass through every city and most of the country. Maintaining the appearance of these lines appears to be a nonexistent priority among the owners. Their lines do nothing to encourage owners of the properties they run through to improve conditions.

I would urge The Star to encourage Congress to obtain ballpark estimates as to what it would cost to:

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

Eliminate all railway-street crossings.

Upgrade the landscapes around rail lines to interstate standards.

Establish a quality program of maintenance.

Replace all diesel trains with electric ones.

Lawmakers should then determine whether the United States could issue revenue bonds as needed to accomplish all of the above.

I would not recommend a federal attempt to purchase private railroads. Conversely, the railroads would appear to be the best candidates to provide the maintenance services as contractors selected by competitive bidding.

This idea only makes sense if it can be done with revenue bonds, with fees from the railroads paying for the debt service and maintenance. First, this must be accomplished with no tax increase. Second, it cannot reduce jobs. In fact, it should do the opposite by significantly increasing the number of well-paying railroad jobs.

A wholesale improvement of America’s rail infrastructure would be a significant, worthy investment for our nation — one that could provide both increased safety for all travelers and economic opportunity for workers.

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