Three Steps to Improving Intercity Transportation in the Amtrak Reauthorization

With the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) heading to conference, the legislative action on infrastructure and transportation turns to passenger rail. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) expired on September 30. Looking back, 2008 seems a long way from where we are today politically. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was much larger in 2008 than it is today, and wielded more power in part because earmarks were still in existence. There was bad blood between Congress and the Executive, for sure, but it was not on par with what we have today and the bill was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Republican President. There was no government shutdown or constant brinksmanship as we have experienced over the last few years, and one party controlled all of Congress.

The result was an impressive piece of legislation. PRIIA provided some stability to Amtrak while also pushing reform. Some of the key provisions included shifting more responsibility to states for funding shorter routes outside the northeast corridor, creating the Northeast Corridor Commission to improve planning and collaboration in that corridor, and providing greater accountability for service quality and finances.

Revisiting and reauthorizing national rail policy in this political environment seems daunting. The good news is that we are entering the passenger rail authorization debate with a Congress that desperately wants to do something productive. The overwhelming vote in favor of WRRDA (417-3) in the House, where very little has been passed at all over the last year, attests to that desire. The bad news is that Amtrak and passenger rail service, unlike water, tends to be a partisan issue. Traditionally, the Democratic Caucus supports Amtrak funding while much of the Republican Caucus – at least those members from states or districts without Amtrak service – tend to oppose it.

Amtrak is an unfortunate example of an issue where misperceptions shape the debate, which is typical when a debate becomes partisan. Democrats tend to frame the debate as being about the need for a national rail system, particularly for those who cannot afford vehicles. But the country and the economically disadvantaged do not “need” any specific mode of transportation such as rail; we all need effective, efficient and affordable transportation irrespective of mode. Republicans tend to frame the issue as one of government waste, particularly on the long-distance routes. But most funding for Amtrak goes towards capital investments in the northeast corridor, which provides strong economic benefits for that region and the nation. Moreover, the amount spent on Amtrak, no matter how wasteful, is a drop in the bucket and essentially irrelevant to the national debt when compared to spending on defense or entitlements (or even the rest of transportation).

Our national policy on passenger rail should not be a partisan issue. The problem with Amtrak and our national passenger rail policy is that it often confuses two missions that have little to do with one another. One mission is the need to provide effective rail service in corridors where rail can provide substantial economic benefits by serving high numbers of passengers. The other mission is to provide transportation services to economically disadvantaged populations that may have no other alternative. While these are both worthy goals, stuffing them both into the Amtrak box has created numerous challenges for the railroad, and results in suboptimal outcomes with respect to both goals. The following are three steps for beginning to clarify these two missions in the next authorization and making them the explicit reason for Amtrak’s existence.

  • Begin to move Amtrak capital funding into the surface transportation authorization programs

Amtrak has been saddled, throughout most of its existence, with the dual problem infrastructure that is in need of repair and inadequate funds with which to repair it. Part of the problem has been that the bulk of the government funds provided to Amtrak go toward capital improvements, but those are almost exclusively in the northeast corridor. Despite the fact that these investments provide significant benefits nationally, it is not necessarily easy to convince representatives from outside the northeast corridor that this is the case. Instead of fighting this battle every year, we could make Amtrak funding more stable by moving into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). This is not a new concept and has been proposed numerous times over the years. However, while this might have been a problematic suggestion years ago when the HTF was funded by user fees, that is no longer the case as general fund transfers now account for a substantial portion of HTF funding.

The HTF, as unstable as it is, could still potentially represent a more stable source of funding for Amtrak. But more importantly the goals and performance measures associated with that program align well with what should ideally be Amtrak’s mission. Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) describes goals of the surface transportation program as including safety, infrastructure condition, congestion reduction, and environmental sustainability, all of which should be goals for Amtrak. MAP-21 also directs USDOT to develop performance measures to provide accountability for these goals, which could be valuable for Amtrak as well. This new structure might help remove Amtrak’s capital appropriations from its traditional partisan debates, and weave it into our larger surface transportation policy. 

  • Create a methodology for determining effective intercity transportation routes for underserved populations

Amtrak describes itself as “America’s Railroad®, the nation’s intercity passenger rail service and its high-speed rail operator.” However, this description misses a key component of what Congress perceives as their mission: providing transportation services to those who have no alternative. We should have a defined methodology for deciding how to provide what we as a society deem essential transportation needs, but that the private sector is not providing on its own. Members of Congress, who claim that their constituents would be left without adequate transportation should Amtrak service be curtailed, often justify Amtrak’s long-distance routes on this basis. Making this goal explicit and developing a methodology for accomplishing it could be valuable in helping to actually achieve it.

An essential component of this clarification would be to allow Amtrak, and eventually a new independent entity, to select the mode by which they provide these essential services. Amtrak already operates bus routes, and greater use of intercity bus could be a very effective way of serving some isolated populations in this country. An agency providing these services might look at the possibility of using contracted out vanpools, ridesharing, or even airplanes where necessary as a way to replace the Essential Air Service program under the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of the current long-distance trains are unlikely to prove to be the best way to serve underserved populations, because frequency tends to be low and trains come through at odd hours. Moving towards a mode-neutral approach for this mission would open up many innovative possibilities that could provide better, more effective, and more efficient services for these populations, while simultaneously reducing the overall federal expenditure.

  • Begin to analyze the idea of severing the dual purposes of Amtrak

While clarifying Amtrak’s dual purpose is a good first step, once that is accomplished it will be difficult to justify keeping both of these purposes under one roof. This next legislation could begin to advance that process by directing Amtrak to develop a strategy for getting there. One component of Amtrak will be focused on capital improvements and select intercity rail service that effectively accomplishes national surface transportation policy goals. Another component will be focused on providing affordable services to populations with no other transportation alternative by whatever mode necessary. There is little reason, beyond political ones, for these two issues to be under the same organization. It is likely that separate entities, each one focused on their singular purpose, would likely be better at accomplishing these separate goals.

One entity would be Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail provider. The new Amtrak would focus on routes that cover substantial portions of their own operating costs, work in partnerships with states, and provide economically beneficial transportation connections. This new railroad could eventually even divest itself of the northeast corridor and other infrastructure it currently owns, giving those to the federal government, or a nonprofit corporation, to maintain with federal funding. It could also potentially give up its monopoly on intercity passenger rail service, enabling competition and greater innovation in the passenger rail sector. The second entity would be a new one whose sole focus would be on connecting people, by multiple modes of common carrier transportation, to the national network. With a specific methodology for determining routes and modes that is based on efficiency and achievement of specific connectivity goals, this organization could be incredibly helpful in providing mobility to those who might otherwise remain isolated.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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