The addition of one lane for just one mile to an existing interstate highway consumes about two acres of land. Rail, however, poses little damage from construction or eminent domain. Visual and historic resources along the rights of way such as battlefields, farms, houses, or urban sites remain largely undisturbed since in most cases the tracks or rights of way are already in place. The tracks, furthermore, have natural earth and gravel between them and to the sides (which can be planted with a dense low-growing cover crop), allowing natural water absorption, erosion control, and wildlife habitat.
Furthermore, railroads require far less space than roads of the same capacity. In many cases the right-of-way just needs improvement, not enlargement. Where more extensive building is required, rail beds produce much less pollution than asphalt and require far less property than roads. They also shorten construction time by years and costs by billions of dollars for greater capacity increases than new highway lanes can offer.
Perhaps most importantly, the inter-city passenger travel options that the Steel Interstate offers, coupled with transit improvements in urban areas will help preserve farms and forest from sprawl development. Well-planned communities designed around model light rail and bus local service and passenger rail for medium-distance travel. Rail travel and transit reward citizens who choose to live in more densely populated areas with local transportation convenience and easy accessible to nearby cities. In these communities, transit stops offer easy access for daily commuting and passage to passenger rail stations or airports. Residents of these communities planned around good public transportation may choose to reduce to one car per family or sell all their motor vehicles, saving money on auto insurance, depreciation, and maintenance costs as well as purchase and interest costs. When a car or light-duty truck is needed; they rent one.
Planning communities around good public transportation options maintains green space, lowers pollution, improves public health and enjoyment of living spaces. This has rippling effects on the regional landscape. Local farms are encouraged to grow and sell produce, meat and value-added food products in nearby population centers. Farms experience reduced pressure from escalating land prices, zoning restrictions, and taxes. This kind of community development reduces greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, offering a far more sustainable pattern of development.
Where appropriate and with proper planning and safeguards, auxiliary bike and pedestrian trails can be included in improved rail corridor designs offering communities expanded options for local travel along nearly ideal easy-graded routes. These paths can be added in most areas with very little cost and construction.
Fragmentation of wildlife habitat is an increasing problem for most large mammals. Deer, for example, need a significant acreage, a problem they’ve attempted to solve by appropriating ours. The intrusion of some of these animals onto highway rights of way have become a hazard to both human and animal. More than 1000 people across the U.S. died in vehicle collisions with deer in 2009.
Highway expansion and new roads and the sprawl development that follows that construction is a principal cause in the U.S. of wildlife habitat fragmentation and destruction.[Pfister, J. "Using Landscape Metrics to Create an Index of Forest Fragmentation for the State of Maryland," unpublished masters thesis, Towson University,May, 2004]
With comparatively far less impact upon the landscape, rail improvements to create the Steel Interstate will have a much more benign impact upon wildlife, view sheds, and historical places. The highway construction required for similar capacity improvements would have dramatic impacts upon the land and wildlife.
Photo art: Rex Wilkins