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Another Voice

Increased rail transport needed to mitigate climate change

By Douglas J. Funke

The Covid-19 pandemic shows us that we should have done better, as a global community, to prepare for a predicted catastrophe that could cause widespread suffering and death. Yet our collective action in response to this emergency has been remarkable, if belated.

It demonstrates what we are truly capable of doing to avert dire outcomes, including economic sacrifices, large public investments and significant changes to our daily routines.

The question is, as we contemplate how to steer back to a workable economy, will we take on that other looming crisis, climate change, which is far larger in scope and potentially more ominous in its long-term and wide-ranging consequences?

Climate change is the result of too much fossil fuel consumption, mostly in the transportation sector: too much driving, too much flying. Ironically, the decrease in vehicle miles traveled during these few weeks of lockdown has helped the environment, worldwide, by immediately improving air quality.

Over a longer term, a similar change in habits would spare countless lives and species now threatened with extinction, including those we rely on for our own survival. Humanity is also impacted by drought, floods and extreme weather events caused by climate change. It's not that global warming isn't deadly; its deadly results are just slower to unfold.

As we undertake massive economy-restoring stimulus efforts to recover from this pandemic, we must also redouble our efforts to fight climate change. As we invest in transportation infrastructure, for example, we should aim to replace flights with low-emission, high-speed rail for journeys under a thousand miles.

If we expect people to drive and fly less, we must provide viable mobility alternatives. Here in Buffalo, we can adaptively reuse our legacy rail rights-of-way to replace the daily mass car commute with clean, hydro-powered rail transit, augmented by electric buses and bikeways.

Our community-owned Metro Rail can move 560 people every 10 minutes, removing up to 560 cars from the roads with little sacrifice to convenience. At 50 mph between stops, Metro Rail is much faster than buses on city streets or cars on congested highways, allowing commuters to forgo parking and be productive en route – saving pollution, time and money.

New York State has already committed to reducing carbon emissions by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and 85% by 2050. We are also part of the 12-state Transportation and Climate Initiative that would put a price on carbon emissions to discourage driving while raising money for green investments. These are important goals, but bold, swift implementation action is needed in the face of our overarching existential climate crisis. Return to business-as-usual is not sustainable. What better time to press the reset button and move toward a safer, healthier and more sustainable way of life?

Douglas J. Funke is president of Citizens for Regional Transit.

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