By M.E. SINGER
Prologue: American railroading has many facets both rich in history and drama. These include railroads of the past and the long distance routes that we need to keep as well as bring back into service. But attention is also needed where so much of the limited funding for rail passenger service is centered in the Northeast and how it fits into a National Rail Passenger system.
As a preface to this story, I found it to be the height of irony to read the stories focused on the Portal Bridge issue in the media of 13 October: In Crain’s New York Business, the headline read: “Officials Stage Mock Groundbreaking for Portal Bridge.” In NJ.Com, the headline read: “Christie Says He Is Confident New Hudson River Tunnels Will be Built.”
The Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey is but another example of how New Jersey in particular, and New York have remained in their defiant silos ignoring the obviously depreciating rail infrastructure for years, as their political leaders have confidently awaited the nation’s taxpayers to pick-up their transportation tab. Really?
If New Jersey/New York claim that $100 Million per day will be lost without the Hudson River Tunnels and Portal Bridge replacements, where was the much vaunted brain trust of the politicians, developers, and financiers in the Northeast not to understand this was an issue growing worse under their tutelage, as they fiercely focused on merely controlling their part of the Northeast fiefdom? Even Big Storm Sandy in 2012 failed to goose those in control to jump start identifying a regional program in concert with the federal government to fund replacement infrastructure.
For the Northeast regional political powers to make the Gateway Project serving New Jersey/New York of national importance is obscene, as it denies the obvious fact how the entire Northeast Corridor is significantly more utilized by the region’s numerous commuter rail lines, than it is by Amtrak. For example, Portal Bridge, just like the Hudson River tunnels, may have but 4 Amtrak trains per hour vs. 20 or more NJT trains in the same rush hour time period. Penn Station-NYC’s capacity is saturated certainly not by increased Amtrak services, but because of growth in NJT and LIRR schedules. In essence, these infrastructure issues are of regional importance; not national significance.
This is a politico game foisted upon the nation by the self-absorbed Northeast politicos down through the ages, who initially secured ownership and control of the Northeast Corridor for Amtrak from the bankrupt Penn Central in 1976. Confidant of an eventual federal bailout down the road, just as today, no attempt was ever initiated to secure buy-in by the states served along the Corridor to mutually support the infrastructure. Nor, was their a rational understanding to allocate Amtrak the additional funds necessary for tending to the vast infrastructure issues so long deferred since built by the New Haven in 1908 and the Pennsylvania in 1935.
Instead, over the years, Amtrak reacted in a dutiful manner by merely starving its national system obligations by redirecting those dedicated funds to shore-up the Corridor. Amtrak has its HQ in Washington for a reason–to fulfill its service, i.e., “obedience,” to its Northeast political patrons, as directed by its Board of Directors run by Northeastern developers and financiers, particularly from NJ. This explains why the infrastructure and safety of Penn Station-NYC was secondary to pleasing Governor Cuomo’s “expressed desire,” i.e., demand, for Amtrak to prioritize its focus on supporting his build-out of Moynihan Station and tower for the benefit of his developer pals.
Given the facts as reported in The New York Times investigative expose on what really happened at Penn Station (9 Oct), how could Anthony Coscia, Amtrak’s Board of Directors Chairman, who was so wired into the political landscape of NJ and NY as a former chair of the Port Authority of New Jersey/New York (PANJNY), make any odorous statements, as if he just learned about everything over the long-standing, long simmering, long neglected Penn Station and Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure? Reminds me of that Marx Brothers movie when Chico Marx made that famous statement, “Well who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
Perhaps a follow-up story in The New York Times should identify the puppet masters of Amtrak’s Board, and dissect how that Board interfered with the safety of Penn Station, while dragging its feet to sound the alarm in Congress, USDOT, FRA, and importantly, the states to be impacted for the overall deferred infrastructure maintenance of the NEC?
For those west of the Hudson, and its “political drainage sister,” the Potomac, the sense is just because the politicians of NJ and NY elected to ignore their growing infrastructure issues does not now make for an automatic bailout by the feds. Instead, this should be viewed as the opportunity to “repeal and replace” the mindset of the Northeast politicians-and Amtrak-to logically approach and correct this entire failed economic regional game plan at the expense of the national taxpayers by asserting the following action that should have been undertaken long ago, including:
1) For any aspect of the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure (e.g., tunnels, bridges, right-of-way, depots) to receive any federal funds must be incumbent upon the federal government, through USDOT, to assume full control of the Northeast Corridor. This will take the Corridor out of Amtrak’s ability, as willed by its Board, to placate the denizens of the Northeast at the expense of the national system, e.g., ignoring GAAP to divert funds from the national system to the Corridor sink hole; not charging the Northeastern commuter rail lines for operating on the Corridor until December, 2015, etc.
2) USDOT to identify the Corridor’s infrastructure costs for maintenance, repair, and improvement; to ensure each state served by the Corridor will be required to contribute to such costs, as well as for the fair apportionment of operating costs to their commuter lines. Indeed, Amtrak should also stop its overt bias and require these Corridor states to start paying the full operational costs, as identified by Amtrak’s own “unique” cost methodology, for their intercity trains–just as required by all of the other non-Corridor states as prescribed by the PRIIA Act of 2008. Also, Amtrak should be charged by the USDOT owner for its share of the operating and maintenance costs of the corridor.
3) Ideally, as the owner/operator of the Northeast Corridor, the USDOT will not continue to narrowly think as a pure monopolist, but learn from the successful and growing new business models in Europe, where national railway infrastructure is now subject to bids by private operators to franchise new routes, as well as competitive services with the government passenger services, e.g., Germany, Italy. As well, the UK even has the open access model introduced for several private operators to compete on the same route.
This is the only logical course to pursue to get the nation behind in contributing towards re-building the Northeast Corridor to put it on a more solid, broader economic base of support by its users, and the marketplace. But any such federal investment must be totally dependent upon much delayed state participation, so conveniently ignored east of the Potomac.