A vision for aviation, too

April 16, 2009 by Craig Fuller

President Obama today announced his vision for high speed rail in America—a vision that includes efficiently moving people and goods between large population centers, and a vision that calls for an investment of $13 billion in federal general fund spending over the next five years.

I’d like to see the President embrace a similar vision for a proven transportation system—aviation. We already know that aircraft large and small move people and products nationwide, making enormous contributions to our economy and the public good. General aviation alone contributes more than 1 million jobs and $150 billion annually to the economy. We also know that investment in airports, aviation infrastructure, and modernization of the air traffic control system are desperately needed to maintain aviation’s exceptional safety record.

With that in mind, I am deeply troubled by the inconsistencies in how these two transportation networks are to be funded. It appears from the administration’s proposal that federal funding for high speed rail will come from the general fund, money derived from all taxpayers whether they use rail or not. At the same time, the administration’s budget proposes that aviation be paid for through billions in new user fees while the general fund contribution to the FAA would decrease substantially.

Aviation works for all Americans, even those who don’t fly. A safe, efficient, modern air transport system is fundamental to ensuring our economic prosperity. It simply doesn’t make sense to impose new financial burdens and reduce public funding for aviation on the one hand, and offer up billions in taxpayer money for high speed rail on the other.  We need a vision for aviation, too—one that maintains the general fund contribution and lets us move forward with the modernization we so urgently need.

  • Alex Kovnat

    One of the things everyone should realize is, high speed rail will create problems. For example: All railroad systems are a safety threat at grade crossings: Wouldn’t you be afraid if, even with freight trains that don’t go all that fast, your teenage son or daughter were out on a Friday or Saturday night date and had to deal with grade crossings? Where I work, I frequently have to pass over a grade crossing near my workplace. Often, when I see those big Diesel locomotives (As many as 3 put together) pulling freight trains, I fear that somewhere out on that system there may be a locomotive with my name on it.

    Now let’s say we have trains going at least as fast as the old Milwaukee Road Hiawathas. You are going to have trains blasting through towns and open country at over 100 MPH, perhaps as fast as 150. If people aren’t willing to accept airports near their homes, how are they going to accept railroad rights-of-way with trains going that fast?

    All transport modes (rubber-tired cars, trucks and buses; railroads, aircraft) have land use issues. We of the aviation community should make people aware that with airplanes, though they may be moving anywhere from 100 to 530 MPH, at least they aren’t doing it on the ground except for the runway length they need to take off and land.

  • Mark Adler

    Well, there is a difference. The high speed rail system has the intent of displacing higher energy transportation for those corridors, such as automobiles and commercial aircraft. The general philosophy appears to be to invest in energy conservation from the general fund, and to continue to pay for other government services as they have been in the past, e.g. with fuel taxes for aviation.

    If we want aviation to be a beneficiary of general fund expenditures for energy conservation, then we have to figure out how and where aviation could provide such benefits. Nothing obvious comes to mind.

    An area where we could call for general fund expenditures would be aviation energy efficiency technology development. How can we make our turbine and reciprocating aircraft engines more efficient? How can we make our airframes, wings, propellers, etc. more efficient?

    In the current era of a call for greater energy efficiency, AOPA needs to put together a story of how we will contribute to that. Not whining about how more efficient transportation methods are getting more money. Get with the times.

  • Jon

    We are one of the only modern nations without good rail services. In the EU, one can hop on a train anytime and go anywhere without traffic, security and not to mention the low fuel consumption. I’m pretty sure they are supplemented though. Like the above states we need to stop whining and find ways to fit in or we’re out. Continental already did a flight with biofuel from algea. What a fantastic step in the right direction.

  • Alex Kovnat

    How can we make our turbine and reciprocating aircraft engines more efficient? How can we make our
    >airframes, wings, >propellers, etc. more efficient?

    OK, here’s one idea: Years ago, there were tests conducted on turboprop engines driving multibladed propellers with thin, swept-back blades that can operate efficiently at Mach 0.8. One such engine was flown on a Boeing 727 test bed. It is a more efficient propulsion system, but from what I’ve heard there are noise issues. If money can be provided to resolve that issue, it would make for more efficient airline and business aircraft.

  • Chris

    High speed rail is great for distances under 400 miles, on level ground with a straight track. In Europe, distances are often within this range. If traveling in North America from coast to coast, somewhere in the order of 3000 miles; high speed rail doesn’t look so good. It will take 20 hours or more just for the transit time at 150 mph. Add considerable time to make stops and connections, which will probably be much more numerous than when flying on an airline, simply because it’s easier to make a stop when you don’t have to land and take off again. Then consider that there are many places in the rail system (such as through mountains) where even a small fraction of 150 mph isn’t possible, at least without incredibly involved and expensive engineering. (Railroads are generally limited to a 3 percent grade.) A one-way trip from coast-to-coast on high speed rail is going to take nearly two whole days to accomplish. It’s a big disadvantage for people who travel for business. With airlines, you can leave a city on one coast in the morning, conduct business on the other coast in the afternoon, and be back the following day by early afternoon.

    Until or unless fuel costs become truly prohibitive, air travel is going to remain for the long distance hauls. Where rail may replace air travel is the shorter-haul, 150-200 mile “feeder” flights from the “hub” cities to the “spoke” cities.

  • Tim Hemp

    The train system, I suspect, is aimed at garnering VOTES for his hoped for second term in office in the cities to which he is proposing service.

  • Don K.

    High speed rail scares the heck out of me. Everything associated with it has to be in 100% condition 100% of the time or you have a “train wreck”. Riding a 2000 ton missile at 150 plus MPH is not in my future, even if the ride was free. We don’t even have a decent bus system in this country and the ones that are operating don’t have many riders. How can empty trains be justified? The rail lobby has killed nearly all attempts at modern rapid transit in this country. The only ones who will profit from any rail system are the builders. Don’t copy Europe’s system simply because that is what they have. We can do better.

  • Graham M.

    Why do we have to turn this into rail-vs-aviation?

    The current “state of the art” in GA ground transportation is a 20-year-old minivan with the lock broken on the driver’s side and the suspension struts bottoming out on every pothole. But I’ve flown over all kinds of rail lines near GA airports. Many times I’ll even follow the train tracks to find the airport. Why can’t I use rail service to get from the airport to downtown?

    Until we can land on Main Street, GA still depends on ground transportation. Better rail service should mean more ways of getting to and from GA airports, which makes GA more useful to more people. It shouldn’t be an either-or thing.

  • Kevin Collins

    I think funding is the only area where this is an “either-or” thing. High-speed rail won’t help with getting people from Main Street to the airport any more than it will displace GA in moving people and products in very rural areas or in/out of small and medium-sized cities. As a one-time rail commuter, I’m all for upgrading our intercity rail infrastructure. I stopped taking the train because the ~150 mile journey took 4 hours, including the “ground transport” time to and from the stations. Now, I carpool and it takes 2.5 hours. I have flown the route a couple of times, but that was for fun rather than efficiency. :-)

    To me, the bottom line is GA provides significant benefits both for the economy and large segments of the population. I have yet to hear an argument that justifies not using general fund monies for such an activity.