walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

the background conversation, or, why rail in Arizona

I was methodically going through Amtrak's fact sheets and it very quickly became apparent that places with good and/or improving passenger rail service have substantial support from the state government and places without support from the state government may have through service, may have a fix-it yard for Amtrak trains, but they don't have good and/or improving passenger rail service -- often quite the contrary.

I also noticed that which places fell into which category were awfully familiar from following other political trends since 2005 especially. I was betting that if there was a state out there that damn well _should_ be working to improve their passenger rail service and absolutely was not, it would be Arizona. Sure enough, they've got a couple extremely plausible corridors (Tucson/Phoenix and their satellite towns as the in state option; LA/Phoenix as a cross state border option) and mysteriously little showed up in the Amtrak fact sheet.

R. was skeptical -- lots of people just sort of assume that Phoenix in particular is sort of a lost cause. It is so car centric, the theory goes, that there is no there there and nothing anyone is likely to do will make there be a there there (especially since they were the one state in 2006 to have the property rights guys win). An extension of this idea would be, once gas gets past a certain point, everyone will move out of town. Depending on the timing, that might not be a problem if all the 50-65 year olds who moved there have since died. Also, running out of water might do them in.

I don't subscribe to that theory. I think we're all rats and cockroaches; we'll find a way. But Arizona surely has its work cut out for it. They apparently have a state constitution that forbids rail subsidies, so the mechanism that has supported passenger rail service everywhere else it has taken off since 2000 will require a change to the state constitution. Trends in the cities involved (especially Phoenix -- I think the tone in Tucson is a little different) don't look great either: that anti-anti-sprawl measure, for example, suggests that preparing the ground to change the constitution is going to be a huge battle. There's no money in the state, since the housing market collapsed so spectacularly, taking with it one of the major industries in the state: construction.

Arizona _should_ be subsidizing passenger rail service. They aren't. This is significant, because this is the kind of path dependency thing that changes the future in unexpected ways. It's beyond my capacity to predict whether that means the Phoenix-will-become-a-ghost-town folk are right, or they'll figure out a way to make passenger rail service pay for itself or UP will decide to get into passenger service, I do not know. But 20 years from now, someone is going to look back on the recent past in Arizona and say, wow, that constitutional bit about railroads? That really put a kink in the way things turned out.
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