Developments in the Amtrak soap opera

By Justin Bur

En transit 2:1/2, Fall 2004 – Winter 2005

The United States government seems to have misread the signals coming from the airline industry’s ongoing agony. What’s good for the airlines must be good for passenger rail as well! And so bankruptcy, rather than being the ultimate recourse to resolve a crisis, has now become a tool of public policy.

On February 7, the President’s proposal for a fiscal year 2006 budget was released. It allocates zero dollars for the operation of Amtrak. Amtrak requires between 1 and 2 billion dollars annually to cover operating expenses and maintenance – a tiny sum compared with U.S. federal transportation subsidies to other modes. When it was pointed out that cutting off Amtrak’s funding would drive the passenger carrier into bankruptcy, the Secretary of Transportation, Norman Y. Mineta, responded that this was the Administration’s intent.

Secretary Mineta makes some important points in defending his proposal – in particular, the need to invest in infrastructure and service improvements in the many corridors where demand is greater than the current capacity of the rail system. Yet it is a fantasy to suppose that eliminating the existing transcontinental and corridor services provided by Amtrak will somehow free up vast resources for new investment, or that bankruptcy court is the appropriate place to determine national transport policy. And the good faith of the Administration is not convincing, given that highway funding is being increased by billions, while the tiny federal high-speed rail development program is slated for elimination.

There has been one positive outcome: Amtrak supporters in both political parties and in all regions of the country have come together to fight back. Legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate both to fund Amtrak for the next fiscal year and to create a fund for future rail infrastructure investment. Amtrak plays such a vital role in some parts of the country, especially in the Northeast Corridor, that it is unlikely that the Administration’s budget proposal will be allowed to pass unchanged.

How many times must the battle over Amtrak’s funding be fought before a stable solution can be found? How much disruption must the transport system undergo before balanced and sustainable public policy can be enacted?