U.S. House Passes Amtrak Bill: A New Era for Passenger Rail?

Amtrak's fortunes may finally be turning around. The National Rail Passenger Corporation has been fighting for its life for the duration of a hostile Bush administration and ever since the last Amtrak authorization bill of 1997, which directed the corporation to become financially self-sufficient and brought about a decade of service cuts and deferred maintenance that worsened Amtrak's poor performance and reputation.

But last Wednesday's vote in the U.S. House of Representatives may usher in a new, more hopeful era for passenger rail in this country. The bipartisan bill (H.R. 6003) would authorize $14.4 billion over five years to support Amtrak, including capital grants to Amtrak itself to invest in new passenger cars, rehabilitate aging bridges and replace railroad ties and overhead wires, and to states to improve passenger corridors and facilities. (For the New York region, this could mean improvements to Moynihan Station may be eligible to receive the state capital grants.) The bill also reverses the self-sufficiency directive as did a similar Amtrak bill passed by the Senate last October. The two bills must now go to conference and pass both houses again before being signed into law.

The key to the bill's easy passage in the House was its support by 87 Republicans, led by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Ranking Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who introduced a provision to create privately funded high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor.

Mica's provision would allow private entities (including Amtrak) to submit proposals for developing two-hour high-speed rail service from New York City to Washington, D.C. True high-speed rail in the Corridor would require a new, separate right-of-way to avoid the existing commuter, intercity and freight rail traffic that uses the Amtrak-owned New York-Washington rail corridor.

The provision will be fought by the powerful rail unions, who fear competition from a non-unionized private rail carrier. And while the privatization scheme is only a request for proposals, it has captured the attention of Mayor Bloomberg and the media. A headline in The New York Sun declared misleadingly, "House Approves New York-D.C. Rocket Train." Bloomberg, who met with Mica two weeks ago to discuss the proposal, expressed his support, noting, "No idea should be ignored or dismissed simply because it is ambitious."

While a new high-speed rail service in the Northeast must surmount a variety of obstacles, including expensive property acquisition in a dense urban corridor, Rep. Mica's unabashed enthusiasm about making high-speed rail a reality is refreshing. Mica, together with the House T&I Committee Chair, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), seem committed to expanding rail service options in this country, even if the two may disagree about the method of funding. Could this be the first taste of a meaningful, bipartisan policy debate about how transportation can improve America's competitiveness in the 21st century?

Outside of the politics or implementation, the demand for such a high-speed service in the Northeast - the nation's densest megaregion - is clear. Amtrak's existing regional service and "higher speed" Acela Express service at 2 hours 45 minutes or longer, captures more riders than air passengers on the New York-Washington route. Amtrak captures 56 percent of the air-rail market share from New York to Washington compared to air's 44 percent.

Since last fall, Regional Plan Association has banded together with other business-oriented civic groups in the Northeast Megaregion to promote investments in the under-funded Northeast Corridor. Chaired by RPA and the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility worked with members of Congress to insert several provisions in the House bill, including authorizing $5 million for a study of the investments required to shave Acela Express trip times from 2 hours 45 minutes to 2:30, 2:25 and 2:00 on the southern end of the corridor and from 3 hours 30 minutes to 3:15, 3:00, and 2:45 on the northern end.

The Business Alliance has also focused on the immediate need to address the backlog of deferred maintenance on the Northeast Corridor, with a price tag estimated at about $4.9 billion. The Amtrak bill authorizes about $6.7 billion for capital grants to Amtrak, which are not confined to the Northeast Corridor, but could address a good portion of its needs. Bringing the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair will bring about more reliable, safe, and speedy service for Amtrak and the 12 commuter rail agencies that share the corridor, including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and NJ TRANSIT.

Nationally, if comparable intercity and higher-speed services were offered in other dense metropolitan corridors, a great deal of regional air flights could be avoided, freeing up airspace for long-haul national and international flights. However, in most other places, Amtrak relies on rails owned by freight companies, which requires Amtrak trains to sit behind freight trains, reducing their on-time performance and hindering a time-competitive option to air and auto travel. Given this lack of time savings, the failure of these services to compete and gain ridership is understandable.

Overall, the support in Congress for the recent Amtrak bill reflects the swelling tide of public sentiment that is concerned about climate change and would like to see more transportation options to replace increasingly expensive automobile travel and congestion in our crowded skies.

-Republished from RPA's Spotlight on the Region Newsletter