September 18, 2017 3:29PM

Reversible Lanes, Not Trains

In the days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes. As people in the rest of the nation watched videos and photos of bumper-to-bumper northbound traffic on Interstates 75 and 95, while the southbound lanes were nearly empty, most had one of two reactions. Some said, "If only Florida had large-scale passenger train service that could move those people out," while others asked, "Why aren't people allowed to drive north on the empty southbound lanes?" 

The aftermath of the storm has already opened a debate over what Florida should do to increase its resilience in the future: build more roads or build more rail lines. The right answer is neither: instead, state transportation departments in Florida and elsewhere need to develop emergency plans to make better use of the transportation resources they already have. 

Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that's simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people--free of charge--out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transportation evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people on three different routes. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida's first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

At the same time, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. The most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lanes on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn't even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic.

A typical four-lane freeway has wide shoulders on both left and right sides of each of the two pairs of lanes. The opposing lanes are often separated by concrete barriers called Jersey Barriers that are designed to be easy to move. The state could have moved a few dozen of those barriers in strategic locations to give northbound traffic access to the southbound lanes. The state could also have put up plastic pylons to separate the north- and southbound traffic in what are normally the south-bound lanes. States take these actions all the time for road construction.

In the case of a four-lane freeway, opening one southbound lane and both center shoulders to northbound traffic would turn two northbound lanes into five. For six-lane freeways, this would turn three northbound lanes into seven. In both cases, there would still be one lane for southbound traffic and the outside shoulders for emergency vehicles. The leaders of every state highway bureau that doesn't have an evacuation plan reversing some lanes to the prevailing direction of travel should be ashamed of themselves.

Successful private businesses respond rapidly and flexibly to changes in the market. Only the government would say, "Look: travel demand is changing dramatically. Let’s do absolutely nothing about it."

Rail advocates argue that trains are more egalitarian because not everyone can afford to own a car. In particular, Florida's older population supposedly meant that fewer than the average number of households have cars. In fact, data from the 2016 American Community Survey indicates that Florida households are more likely to have cars than the national average: 93.4 percent of Florida households have at least one car compared with 91.3 percent nationwide.

The reality is that passenger trains are far more expensive to operate per passenger mile than cars. Amtrak fares average nearly 30 cents a passenger mile and subsidies to Amtrak are another 25 cents a passenger mile. Americans spend an average of about 24 cents a passenger mile driving and those who wish can spend a lot less by buying used cars instead of new. Highway subsidies add only another penny or so. For daily transportation, this makes trains the elitist form of travel while cars are more egalitarian.

Nor do trains offer better service in the event of natural disasters. Tri-Rail, south Florida's commuter-rail line, shut down 60 hours before Irma hit so employees could tie down trains and facilities for the storm. Amtrak cancelled its Florida trains at the same time as Tri-Rail. 

After the storm, it took Tri-Rail almost five days to clear the tracks of fallen trees and restore power to its electric trains. One part of the rail line was so damaged that the agency is busing people around that part of the line. As of this writing, Amtrak is still not running trains south of Jacksonville.

Using trains to evacuate people after a sudden natural disaster such as an earthquake is even more problematic than before the event. Rail infrastructure, especially for fast trains, requires a high level of precision that is not needed for highways. Vehicles on pavement are far more resilient than trains on inflexible tracks since pavement doesn't have to be as smooth as tracks. Unlike trains, highway vehicles can drive around obstacles that are partly blocking roads and by-pass roads that are completely blocked.

Natural disasters are going to happen. Eastern and Southern coastal states suffer from hurricanes. The Midwest has tornadoes. The West Coast has earthquakes and the occasional volcanic eruption. What America needs to respond to these events is not more trains but more creative and flexible highway management.