Congress spends billions on roads while trains go begging
Poised to launch the first high-speed train project in the United States, the nation's
passenger railroad is nevertheless on the verge of derailing. Decades of underfunding
forced Amtrak to cut 42 routes in 1996 and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy in 1997.
This year has not been much easier. At the same time that Congress and the Clinton
administration were preparing to fork over $28 billion to the highway industry as part of
the recently passed 1999 transportation bill, Amtrak was being forced to justify its very
Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
requested that Amtrak be denied all funding, except in the busy Northeast corridor. Train
supporters rallied, and at presstime the Senate had budgeted $555 million for capital
improvements, and the House, $609 million. But that's approximately one-third the amount
(adjusted for inflation) the railroad received 20 years ago. For the first time in
Amtrak's history, it will receive no operating assistance from the federal government.
"Congress is starving Amtrak when it should be nurturing it," says John
Holtzclaw, chair of the Sierra Club Transportation Committee. Most transportation research
shows that high-speed rail transit provides a safer, more efficient, and more
environmentally responsible alternative to increasing road capacity.
A report released
last winter by Northwest Environment Watch, for example, confirms that cars and light
trucks are the number-one source of greenhouse gases in the Pacific Northwest. Trains are
15 times more efficient per passenger than the average automobile, and emit less pollution
per rider-mile than cars, planes, and buses.
Still, Amtrak critics point to the railroad's financial woes and declare that railways
are uncompetitive. "There is no more reason for taxpayers to subsidize Amtrak than
there is for taxpayers to provide subsidies to . . . vacation cruise lines," sniffed
a Cato Institute report last year. What Cato neglects to mention is that all
transportation systems depend on hefty subsidies. This year, for example, the Senate
budgeted almost $10 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration-twice the amount
budgeted for public transit and more than ten times the amount budgeted for rail. Highway
builders were granted nearly $30 billion with little fuss. Indeed, given Amtrak's status
as the stepchild of the federal transportation system, it's remarkable that it runs at
Taking rail seriously is especially critical now that Amtrak is about to offer relief
to the nation's congested inter-urban corridors. In 1999, high-speed trains will begin
servicing the Northeast corridor, slicing two hours off the Boston-New York route. Last
May, Amtrak added a fourth daily train between Seattle and Portland and cut 25 minutes off
the trip time. In the Midwest, Amtrak is working on an expanded regional network centered
in Chicago. North Carolina is implementing plans for a high-speed expansion of the
Charlotte-to-Raleigh section of the 477-mile Piedmont corridor, and Californians will soon
vote on a high-speed inter-urban rail system.
Nationally, ridership is up 6 percent this year. Even long-distance routes, which
critics dismiss as needless nostalgia trips, are posting significant increases. Passenger
trips on the Seattle-to-Los Angeles Coast Starlight, for example, increased 24 percent
Despite these promising developments, Congress has appointed a 12-member Amtrak Reform
Council to explore ways of selling the railroad should it fail to become financially
independent. These privatization proposals, warns the National Association of Railroad
Passengers, "not only appear to envision an Amtrak without long-distance
trains," but would also halt progress on emerging inter-urban corridors. The British
rail system tells a cautionary tale. After being privatized several years ago, it faced
delays, route cuts, and a billion-dollar bailout by the government.
Without federal cooperation, most states and private parties aren't going to fund new
rail projects, dozens of which have been proposed over the last 20 years. All have proven
too expensive for states to build on their own, especially since the new federal
transportation law prevents states from using highway moneys for rail projects.
"Our nation's commitment to passenger rail service is at a crossroads," says
Craig S. O'Connell of the advocacy group Friends of Amtrak. "It's up to Congress to
set the agenda for an environmentally balanced national transportation policy."Linda