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Amtrak: The moment of truth is at hand

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted July 1, 2002

In the game of brinkmanship, new Amtrak President David Gunn promised to shut down the railroad if the government didn't come up with money to keep it going. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta blinked and, for right now, $100 million would appear to be coming Amtrak's way and another $100 million may be made available later in the summer when Congress gets in gear.

Amtrak President David Gunn

I can't blame Gunn for what he did. He had looked at the books when he was being considered for the job. Things seemed to be in order. He takes over and learns in Enron style that somehow all of a sudden the railroad was $200 million short for this fiscal year.

And I can't blame Secretary Mineta in a way, because every Congressman -- except those in Alaska and Hawaii, and a few mavericks such as John McCain -- much less to say hundreds of Mayors and other city and county officials were down his throat demanding that the rail service be continued.

But where I do place the blame is here: There should be a price to pay for the $100 million or $205 million or whatever it will turn out to be. And that price should be the adoption of the reforms recommended by the Amtrak Reform Council and also the Bush Administration. At first the Administration seemed to be taking a hard line in favor of reform. But now it would seem the administration has softened its stand.

This is the only time when real reform can be adopted. Amtrak is desperate. They will do most anything to stay alive. If the Administration says to David Gunn, "Either you adopt these reforms or there is no $100 million," it would be fun to watch how fast Gunn would advocate those reforms. Perhaps not all of them at once but at least some of the more important ones.

First and foremost, competition has to be introduced for the long distance trains. Serving as Vice Chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council, my colleagues and I had been approached by many entities wanting to explore running the train from Los Angeles to Seattle, the auto train from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford Florida, the train from Washington to New Orleans, the train from Washington to Chicago, the Keystone Service from New York and Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and so on. Now, if actually afforded the chance to run these trains, it will be interesting to see how many of the railroads in the USA, Great Britain, bus companies, and non-related businesses would actually end up bidding to operate the service, but at least those interested should be given that opportunity.

And the states need to bear a greater burden for service. The way the law is written now, any state that wants a train can demand that Amtrak run the service and the state has to pay as little as 35 per cent of the deficit for running the train. Why should federal taxpayers get stuck with the bill just because a state wants a train running in their state? The Vermonter is a good example of a train that was instituted under that provision of the law. The train is a big money loser except during the skiing season. But the amount Vermont pays to keep the trains rolling is not sufficient. If Vermont wants that train, then they should pay the whole bill. Likewise the states which operate commuter trains on the Northeast Corridor do not pay their full share of what it costs to operate service there.

Amtrak operates a limited number of trains in the corridor. But the commuter trains are far more numerous and frequent. Amtrak has to maintain the right of way and that is very costly. The Amtrak Reform Council has recommended that the infrastructure be separated from the operation of the trains. We believe Amtrak or whatever it might be called in the future should concentrate on hauling passengers, mail and express. A government entity should own the right of way and should maintain it much the way the interstate highway system is maintained. Amtrak, along with the commuter railroads and the freight railroads that use the corridor should pay access fees and tolls in the same manner that the Pennsylvania turnpike is maintained. The Northeast Corridor needs $20 billion in investment over the next decade. It is silly to expect that Congress is going to give Amtrak all that money in addition to a subsidy. But a government entity that would own the corridor could sell bonds and get the necessary work done.

These reforms, and there are others, must be agreed to now. Otherwise, Congress will just be asked for endless subsidies at an ever-increasing rate. There are those at the CATO Institute and the Heritage Foundation who want to see Amtrak go bankrupt and then get partially privatized according to what the market will bear. I am sympathetic to that view but I can't support it entirely. Amtrak serves many communities that have no air or bus service. Amtrak is their lifeline.

Congress and the Administration need to figure out which of these routes are indispensable. Then Congress and the Administration should say to the American people that they are granting Amtrak $500 million or whatever amount chosen because they believe the nation can ill afford to be without these trains.

Let us not forget that when the airlines were shut down after 9/11, it was Amtrak that picked up the slack. All forms of transportation are subsidized by the government. Your ticket doesn't pay for the air traffic controllers. The government does. Yes, the interstate highway system is paid for through gasoline taxes, but all the other roads that make up a grid in any state you name come from subsidized tax dollars. If you didn't have those roads, then where will you go when you get off of the Interstate exit? Even the various ferries that take commuters, for example, from Staten Island to Manhattan, are subsidized.

So if some money goes to Amtrak, so be it. But the money should not go down a rat hole. Those routes that can be privatized (so long as they agree to tie into the rest of the system) should be permitted to do so. And the states must play a much larger role in a reformed Amtrak, especially if thirteen high-speed corridors are to be developed.

This is the moment of truth. At the end of the day, we will either have a reformed Amtrak that is much less of a burden to at least the federal taxpayer, or we will have business as usual. If it's the latter course, then next year the federal taxpayers will be asked to dole out $1.2 billion just for starters. If Secretary Mineta holds his ground, he can effect real change. If he blinks, there may never be another chance to reform Amtrak and thus it will lumber along, barely hanging onto life. That is, to borrow a phrase, no way to run a railroad.

Paul M. Weyrich is President of the Free Congress Foundation. Mr. Weyrich is Vice Chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council and served six terms on the Amtrak Board of Directors. He publishes the New Electric Railway Journal webpage.

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