Iceland volcano ash cloud: At least Europe has a backup in trains, ferries, buses

The Iceland volcano underscores the need for the US to invest more heavily in surface transportation -- and move quickly to reauthorize the six-year transportation law.

The cost to the airline industry of the Iceland volcano has now surpassed that of 9/11, according to the group that represents the world’s air carriers.

But unlike in the United States, air passengers stranded in Europe have more transportation options with highly interconnected and efficient trains, buses, and ferries.

Bumped flyers may be forced to travel cheek by jowl as they flock to alternatives, but the point is, they at least have a sophisticated transport backup to turn to. And its importance grows with each day that ash spews from Iceland’s volcano.

Over the decades, the Europeans have worked steadily at building this extensive and generally reliable surface network – not without grumbling. Back in 1987, when construction began on the English Channel rail tunnel, the British were still debating its merits. Cost overruns in the ensuing years did not help the tunnel’s cause. But the island inhabitants are surely thankful for it now, as the French railway SNCF says it will offer reduced fares and 80,000 extra seats between Paris and London this week.

All across Europe, ferries, trains, and buses are adding capacity to make up for the sudden lack of air travel – the largest shutdown of European airspace since World War II. The war comparison is an apt one, because it underscores the importance of transport as a national security issue. Indeed, the British Royal Navy is being dispatched to pick up stranded passengers from continental shores.

American President Dwight Eisenhower recognized the security value of a national highway system, partly because he was so impressed by the German autobahn in World War II. He got the ball rolling on the US interstate grid, called the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

The US needs to again treat transportation with such seriousness. Within 50 years, America’s population is expected to surge by 150 million people. Likewise, transportation experts expect huge traffic increases in freight over the next few decades. But over time, the US has neglected its infrastructure, and in the case of streetcars and passenger rail, even eliminated or reduced these networks.

The country is slowly waking up to its transport deficiency. In the 2008 election, voters passed 25 of 33 ballot measures to increase local or state taxes to pay for public transportation. Californians passed a ballot initiative to start building a bullet train network. And since his election, President Obama has pushed forward high-speed rail.

But Washington – including the president – is stalling on critical legislation that maps the way for getting people and goods from here to there: the transportation bill. The bill sets policy on roads, bridges, mass transit, and freight movement for six years. It was supposed to be reauthorized last year, but the White House discouraged that because it wanted to focus on health-care legislation.

Cost is also an issue. The price tag for the House version is about $500 billion, and the current mechanism for funding roads – the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax – cannot cover the costs of the House bill. In an election year in which government spending and the deficit are playing such a large role, neither the White House nor the leadership in Congress is eager to act on the bill.

Yet stalling only adds to the cost, and the congestion. America can foresee its transportation needs. But what about the unforeseen? Perhaps not a volcano, but another 9/11 or natural disaster, such as a severe hurricane season. The United States should be at least as prepared as Europe.

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