By M. E. Singer
Wherever we are located along the national distance route system, we are exhausted hearing the superficial doff of the hats and superficial pledges that do nothing to add or encourage any hope toward meaningful investment in the requisite acquisition of new equipment to increase frequencies and expand routes. Instead of starting with the usual diatribe against the obvious political emphasis of Amtrak’s direction re the Northeast Corridor at the expense of investing in the national system, as we know the historical issues, I prefer to start with my recommendations. Up front, I recommend:
Given the past history of willful neglect by the region’s politicians, and Amtrak’s perpetual “shell game” floating revenues and funding from the national system to shore-up the Northeast Corridor, the following action must be undertaken to ensure the federal and state governments “sing from the same hymnal” as a matter of national common sense, if we are to avoid another extraordinarily over cost “Big Dig” project (Boston) to impact across the region.These proposed resolutions are reasonable if we are to avoid a “Manhattan Project” fractured along regional and state politics:
1) Through an act of Congress, the USDOT should assume complete control over the Northeast Corridor-operationally, infrastructure, and collecting payments.
2) The FRA, working with the USDOT, will expeditiously pursue a review of the Northeast Corridor infrastructure issues, and provide to Congress within three months a prioritization of projects.
3) To help fund the renovation of the Corridor’s infrastructure, the actual users will pay their proportionate share for operations, dispatching, and infrastructure depreciation costs, including: commuter, freight, and Amtrak. For Amtrak, the states served on the Corridor will pay full costs pursuant to PRIIA and Amtrak’s cost methodology, just as the non-Corridor states have been required to pay since 2013, when that section of PRIIA became effective.
4) To maximize utilization-and revenue producing opportunities, the USDOT will consider bids from vetted, experienced private operators to either franchise intercity Corridor passenger services, or, to create open access for multiple, competitive private operators along the Corridor. This shall include dedicated mail and express trains running at night.
5) Congress shall pass legislation disbanding Amtrak’s Board of Directors, requiring Amtrak’s CEO to report directly to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), in order to sort and dismiss the politics out of Amtrak’s mission and direction.
This PR release is all good and well; however, what this industry media in particular should be more interested in reporting on is its follow-up to the shocking revelations from the NEW YORK TIMES investigation this past October (10/9/17). This extensive investigation ascribed the infrastructure failure of Penn Station to a highly politicized environment, encouraged, if not directed, by Amtrak’s Board of Directors.
I have come to this conclusion base upon the latest PR hack job against the national system. In CRAIN’S NEW YORKL BUSINESS, they took an unabashed position oblivious to the national system in their editorial, “Building Industry Leaders to Lobby Trump and GOP re Gateway” (3 Jan) that the NEC is totally uber.
Wrong–to gain any traction over this prophetic political ‘kicking the can can down the road’ by all parties involved requires first to deal only with the facts; let’s stop embellishing the actual situation here. That means how the political powers of the Northeast must stop fogging the issue claiming how heavily utilized the Northeast Corridor is by Amtrak intercity trains in order to create the myth of its intercity travel relevance. Beyond the long distance routes between NYC-Washington and the South, including two Florida, one Georgia, one West Virginia, one North Carolina, and one Louisiana trains, Amtrak has been generally limited to but two trains per hour each way towards Boston and Washington– one Acela; one Northeast Regional. To the contrary, the heavy traffic of the Northeast Corridor is exclusively produced by the numerous commuter rail agencies throughout the Northeast region, e.g., MBTA, Shore Line East, Metro North, LIRR (Penn Station NYC), SEPTA, MARC, and VRE. Until an act of Congress in December, 2015, these commuter lines never paid Amtrak for their operating costs and cost of depreciation of the Corridor; their politicos in cahoots with Amtrak were quite aware.
Amtrak’s perpetual negligent safety culture over its national and stater-supported routes can be directly attributed to the Amtrak Board of Directors and management team overtly tilting their focus and resources exclusively upon the Northeast Corridor to serve their political masters of that region. Consequently, the national system has been marginalized through an avoidance of GAAP to complement a negative PR mantra that would cause Herr Goebbels to plush.
The national system network has experienced how its growth demands have been ignored and financial performance diminished by usurping its revenues to plug-up the worst kept secret –how the ownership of the Corridor is a “black hole” cost Amtrak has never been able to afford, given the inherited, excessive deferred maintenance. So, as long as Amtrak could get away with it through the machinations of its connected Board and obsequious management line eager to participate, irregardless of the overall responsibilities of operating a railroad, resources were diverted to exclusively shore-up the Corridor. This included squandering the non-Corridor state train payments at 100% of Amtrak’s costs, and the illegal forgiving of reimbursement by the Northeast commuter lines.
The governors of New York and New Jersey, eagerly seized upon the encouragement by their state’s congressional members to historically ignored their responsibilities for the Corridor–tunnels, bridges, Penn Station, etc., because they were most eager to accept the myth that this was never a regional responsibility. Therefore, it was most enthusiastically embraced that even before Gateway was conceptualized, every aspect of the Northeast Corridor was a federal responsibility
However, note the irony how quickly Governor Cuomo recognized Moynihan Station in Manhattan as a regional asset for the sake of the developers who are his political supporters. At this point, we should be asking where was the Port Authority New York New Jersey, or due to its political bent, it too followed the storyline of the Corridor as being strictly a federal responsibility.
Frankly, given these facts, for those intent on lobbying Washington, it would behoove them to drop the other myth–somehow ‘the sun never sets on the New York City empire,’ given the allegation that the feds were going to loan New York and New Jersey their half of the costs for Gateway. Couple that to the ‘smoke and mirrors’ that perpetuates, as these politicos and their uber-politicized PANYNJ have yet to acknowledge that Gateway is but a portion of the requisite costs of over $52 Billion required to bring the Northeast Corridor up to par excellence.
Perhaps the K Street crowd down in “Gucci Gulch” still encourages the political class of New York and New Jersey to continue with their pipe dream of having no responsibility for their regional commuter-oriented infrastructure.? However, I’ll bet that if the facts were properly explained to anybody on a bar stool in Red Hook Brooklyn or Bayonne, they would be flabbergasted how their politicians forgot Lincoln’s warning how they “could not fool all the people all the time!”