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Congress, Administration Trade Gimmicky Ideas For Keeping Amtrak Afloat

Image: Amtrak

At today’s hearing on Amtrak’s budget proposal, the nation’s rail leaders met with a different kind of Congressional leadership than in it has in recent years. The vibe of the meeting was significantly less combative -- with the primary exception being Rep. John Mica’s reprise of his famous role as Amtrak villain. Here are some highlights:

Budget request. First, the topline numbers [PDF]: Amtrak made its formal budget request to Congress two weeks ago, asking for $373 million in operating support – 17 percent less than it requested in 2013 – and $2.065 billion in capital support. It needs less operating support now because skyrocketing ridership is allowing Amtrak to cover more and more – 88 percent this year -- of its operating costs through ticket sales.

Dedicated funding. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo and Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman advocated for rail’s inclusion in a dedicated “transportation trust fund.” They said that would make rail funding more stable and predictable and help bring rail into parity with other modes. Recent history shows that a dedicated fund hasn’t saved highways and transit from severe uncertainty and piecemeal funding. The real solution, as always, is to increase revenues to stabilize the trust fund.

The peace dividend. Republicans can be forgiven for dismissing it as a gimmick, but the administration continues to insist that the “savings” from the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan can help pay for infrastructure. The plan, as Szabo laid it out, is to dedicate $300 billion of the $600 billion “savings” to deficit reduction, then spend $214 billion to fully fund highways and transit through 2020, and then add rail into the equation with a $40 billion infusion.

Rural service. “Aviation is leaving these rural communities, inter-city buses are leaving these rural communities, and rural America has to have some transportation options,” Administrator Szabo told Rail Subcommittee Chair Jeff Denham (R-CA). Denham agreed and said he would look into holding a hearing to focus exclusively on mobility options in rural America. (Szabo also noted that inter-city buses, which often get praised for not requiring public support, benefit from billions of dollars in highway subsidies.)

Long-distance routes. T&I Chair Bill Shuster – who represents a rural district in southwestern Pennsylvania – proposed suspending service on some money-losing long-distance lines and focusing instead on city-to-city service. “We’ve tried to impose this on the nation and it doesn’t seem to be working,” he said. “We talk about rural areas -- I come from a rural area, and 98 percent of the people have cars, people aren’t clamoring to get on trains and travel the United States. They have other modes to do it."

Aside from the fact that it’s disappointing to hear Shuster dismiss the need for sustainable and efficient modes and just let people drive, his point was flawed on several levels. Boardman said people were, in fact, “clamoring” to get on trains – ridership isn’t just up along the Northeast Corridor but also on long-distance routes. But more than that, he said, cutting the six “biggest losers” would mean cutting off all service to the west coast. Shuster said he believes in a national rail network, but such a plan would be the death of it.

Finally, Boardman said that restoring suspended service can be exorbitantly expensive. When they looked into increasing frequency on the Sunset Limited from three days a week to four, the freight railroad put a massive price tag on it. “And that, Mr. Chairman, is the problem with cutting back,” he said. “If you cut back, then when you go back to put it back in service, if you ever do, you probably can’t afford to do so; you lose it. And that’s the biggest difficulty here, is losing the whole shebang.”

PTC. Many rail advocates say the 2015 deadline for railroads to have implemented the technology for Positive Train Control is unrealistic, but Szabo said the ball’s not in the FRA’s court, as many assume. “Only Congress can change the date,” Szabo told Shuster. “Our responsibility is, in essence, to execute the requirements you give us. And as of right now, the requirement we’re obligated to execute is that deadline of 2015.”

California. Shuster is no fan of the California high-speed rail project, and he’s never been shy about saying so. He wants the money to go to the Northeast Corridor instead, or, if it’s going to stay in California, to improvements on the line between San Jose and San Francisco or between Los Angeles and San Diego – “It’s not in my lifetime that they’re going to come up with the money to build high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles.” Even with high-speed rail set to break ground this summer, he wants to talk about redirecting federal money away from it. Szabo said the administration remains “committed and bullish on California high-speed rail” but that any future discretionary rail grants will be distributed based on merit, with no guarantees for California. That’ll make it even harder for the state to make up the $60 billion funding hole it still has.

Northeast Corridor. Speaking of the Northeast Corridor, the price tag has climbed from $40 billion to $52 billion to bring the NEC up to a state of good repair. “The continuing underfunding of what needs to be done will result in potentially slowing speeds, and potentially having worse on-time performance, and generally degrading the Northeast Corridor,” Boardman said.

Fix-It-First. Rep. Jeff Denham took over the subcommittee gavel from Shuster when Shuster took over the full committee from Mica, and he seems to be echoing Shuster’s more level-headed demeanor. Although Denham is public enemy number one of California high-speed rail, he ran a fairly collegial hearing, where Szabo and Boardman weren’t dodging barbs and bullets the whole time and could actually have a fruitful dialogue with members of Congress. That said, Denham did hold the administration’s feet to the fire on its “fix-it-first” rhetoric, wondering why the administration is asking for billions more for high-speed rail when it’s claiming to focus on the maintenance backlog instead of new capacity. (Note: President Obama’s budget, released yesterday, requested $40 billion for high-speed rail and other passenger rail projects.)

Mica. Sorry for keeping you in suspense so long – I know you’ve been waiting to hear what antics Mica pulled. Well, he did brandish a McCafe cup to show that McDonald’s is able to charge low prices and make a profit, while Amtrak food service is subsidized (to the tune of $834 million over the past decade, Mica claims). Then he went after Amtrak for not yet being entirely cashless. “Oh no, don’t tell me that!” Mica groaned when Boardman said they weren’t yet cashless for all transactions. “Even with your mobile phone, you can get a device now to charge for people to do lawn work.” Always looking at the big picture, Mr. Mica.

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