By M.E. Singer
Currently, the only viable High-Speed Rail (HSR) in the U.S. is the proposed Texas HSR between Dallas-Houston. Hard to believe how the U.S. once led the world before and right after WWII with a vast, inter-connecting network of very fast long distance and corridor streamliners, easily attaining speeds over 100mph under steam and diesel, along jointed rail, with numerous grade crossings.
Today, just as governmental policy in Europe supported rail and the continuous growth of HSR, American federal policy picks winners and losers within the same mode of transport. While the public trough built, and still maintains, the Interstate Highway System and the Air Traffic Control System, the privately-owned railroads were constricted by outdated regulations, and taxed by every jurisdiction where their tracks ran, had depots, or yards. Unable to compete against an open-ended federal treasury directly supporting privately-owned airlines, buses, and trucks; overtly subsidizing the growth of the auto, the final blow to the American passenger train was the federal government’s decision in 1967 to eliminate the Railway Post Office, turning over this lucrative business to the airlines and trucks.
Despite the obvious potential of corridors, America has no HSR because we lost our history and travel habits relying on the inter-city passenger train. Consequently, since the mid-1960s, our major airports are clogged with short-haul “puddle jumpers” flying no more than 500 miles, or less. (At Chicago O’Hare, it was estimated up to 45% of its take-offs are flights under 500 miles). Every European country understands how this ignores the basic economics of HSR, and higher speed regionals, offering fast, frequent, city center to city center service.
However, more to the point, what de Tocqueville never envisioned when he studied American democracy was the growth of powerful lobbying groups and their power of the purse to influence, if not, control Congress. Our politicians are consumed by well-heeled (and high-heeled) lobbyists intent on securing their one dimensional political directive, typically anathema to the public’s interest. So, despite the obvious advantages of HSR in our under 500 mile corridors, including the immense economic development spin-off, land usage and environmental conservation, airports like O’Hare continue to invest in more runways and gates.
Lobbying groups have focused their power around industries vehemently against the passenger train rising like the “Phoenix” out of its governmental created ashes, including: auto, oil, tire, construction, and now, airline, air manufacturer, bus, and bus manufacturer. Concomitantly, the same Congress has created dedicated trust funds exclusively and only for air and highway, financed by their own specific taxes, as well as from general revenues.
In essence, we now have the best Congress money can buy, mirroring the public’s ever growing demand to cut taxes, and cease to invest in the nation’s future. Rather than cutting subsidies near and dear to members of Congress, such as oil, cotton, rice, sugar, pharmaceuticals, Essential Air Services; or, even to accept the legitimate need for user fees by tolling the interstate highways and raising fuel taxes, Congress has espoused a persistent policy to dis-invest in our nation’s infrastructure.
Given the long term impact of this anti-competitive federal policy that has had nearly permanent deleterious results on the American passenger train, Amtrak, has continued to be quite willfully neglected and treated like a step-child of the federal government that created it in 1970. Apparently intended to be but a temporal relief for the Class 1 freight railroads concerned about the spreading financial impact of a Penn Central bankruptcy, Amtrak has never enjoyed the requisite level of funding to facilitate planning for rebuilding corridors; nor to have the financial security to guarantee securing optimal prices for equipment acquisition to increase frequencies and expand routes.
The lobbyists have enjoyed a field day smoke-screening Congress sufficiently to forget its institutional knowledge how reliant the nation is upon an all-mode infrastructure for its mobility and economic growth; successfully convincing the public through its diluted mainstream media to actually believe only Amtrak receives subsidies. With such powerful forces funding these lobbyists, how is anybody expected to learn how all modes of transport are subsidized? Does the public and its media know that only the railroads have self-capitalized to build and maintain their own infrastructure? Does the public and its media realize the persistent bias against the railroads by Congress—that despite Congress fully funding the Air Traffic Control System, Congress created its unfunded mandate in 2008 requiring all railroads to pay for the installation and maintenance of the Positive Train Control system?
Recognizing how Amtrak has been historically required to respond to, if not prioritize, the power-base of the political milieu in its backyard on the Potomac, we have reached a significant crossroads for Amtrak. Will the excessive financial power and extensive political influence of lobbying finally choke-off funding and starve Amtrak by appealing to an antiquated regional philosophy of Congress, and the willingness of the public to be duped, just to keep their taxes low? If so, precious little time is left to avoid an impending post-mortem on “Amtrak: how lobbying derailed Amtrak as the dodo bird.”
Or, we can choose to preserve, and even grow Amtrak, as the nation’s preeminent mode of inter-connectivity by investing in the development of the obvious corridors of potential, acquiring and rehabbing equipment, and designing the appropriate long distance routes serving tourism and our aging population. To experience the rise of Amtrak as the “Phoenix bird” out of its ashes to offer mobility and the resultant spin-off of economic development requires a fast moving, multi-tiered offensive to quickly take the following incremental actions with the new administration in January, 2017.
1) The important first step has been achieved with the retention of Charles W. Moorman as Amtrak’s CEO, effective 1 September 2016. Now Amtrak will be run by a real railroader with a lifetime experience in railroad finance and operations. Moorman has garnered a lifetime of respect from his industry peers, which will be key to reestablishing an improved working relationship with the Class 1s. Importantly, Moorman’s requisite knowledge base will serve Amtrak well by identifying the correct vision to guide Amtrak’s Board of Directors, and to re-build fragile and stressed relationships with Congress, labor unions, employees, and the media.
2) Just like the privately-owned airlines, Amtrak should also be authorized to tax its tickets to directly fund its operational requirements. As well, until Congress resolves the smokescreen preventing the obvious need for gas taxes and tolls to actually pay user fees for our roads, Amtrak should also be authorized to retain the tax it pays on its fuel for its own capital requirements.
3) We need to eliminate the inter-modal bias of the dedicated air and highway trust funds by establishing an overall, embracing Transportation Trust Fund, which would explicitly include Amtrak, commuter rail, and our private Class 1 freight railroads. Amtrak must avoid the annual pejorative budget brawl in Congress by establishing a true budget line item to be fully funded to eliminate its annual “tin-cup approach” for appropriations that barely keep the national network rolling. (Whatever happened to the five year FAST concept?)
4) To level the playing field in transportation, Congress should authorize appropriations to the railroads (Class 1s, Amtrak, commuter) to fully fund the currently unfunded congressional mandate of 2008 for Positive Train Control. Just as in 1956, and again in 1960, Congress moved to fully appropriate the FAA and Air Traffic Control System for the privately-owned airlines, (after two major mid-air collisions); now, Congress needs to make it right to the railroads. It’s bad enough that snow on the interstates is plowed by the state DOTs for the convenience of the competitors to the railroads.
5) Congress shall embrace P3 (Public-Private Partnership) specifically to facilitate investment to improve railroad infrastructure to handle regional and state passenger corridors, as well as to meld with and improve interfacing with freight.
a) Concomitantly, Congress shall require Amtrak to create a fully transparent cost model to encourage state participation to increase frequency over current routes, as well as to develop or expand new routes.
b) If the Northeast Corridor is to be separately funded by Congress, perhaps the 85% of full cost allocation by Amtrak to the state-supported routes under 750 miles shall be designated by the same Congress for the specific business sector of state-supported trains in order to fund equipment and infrastructure requirements?
6) Congress shall toll the interstate highway system and increase fuel taxes to a level commensurate to actual user fees; thereby, eliminating the artificial and false subsidy of highways and their users. Perhaps the public will then appreciate what a “subsidy” is?)
7) Congress shall legislate that no national, state, or municipal transport program utilizing any taxes for the purchase of equipment will be required to focus on the “lowest bidder,” particularly if they have no proven track record, as we have witnessed with CRRC subway cars for Boston and Chicago; Hyundai Rotem commuter cars for Boston, LA, and Philadelphia; and Nippon Sharyo for Amtrak Midwest and California inter-city bi-level cars. a) Because of this illogical bidding concept, Congress shall not penalize Amtrak for the inability of Nippon Sharyo to produce bi-levels per contract; thereby, extend the funding date past 2017. b) Congress shall require U.S. DOT to move the incapacitated order from Nippon Sharyo to Bombardier, Alstom, or Siemens, already with plants here with a skilled American workforce; prepared to use American steel and U.S.-made components.
8) If we can lockout the lobbyists from deliberations, Congress shall determine to what extent can higher, and high speed rail, diminish the saturation of major airports by facilitating the financing of HSR infrastructure-and operations-as it has historically provided for air and highway programs, for the potential corridors up to 500 miles.