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Congress urged to fix Amtrak

Without restructuring, disruption in service looms, report finds

By Leslie Miller, Associated Press

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Froma Harrop: Free 'Amtrak 21' from Istook's ire

December 12, 2004

THIS IS THE STORY of the "Amtrak 21." It's a dramatic tale involving political intrigue and, according to some, near-violence between two congressmen. And it comes with a strong message for liberals and moderates: They, more than anyone else, need to get the federal government off their backs.

The Amtrak 21 is a group of moderate Republicans, mostly from the Northeast and Midwest. These lawmakers represent districts that regard Amtrak as an essential piece of their transportation grid. Their crime was writing a letter that called for $1.8 billion in Amtrak funding.

Rep. Ernest Istook does not like Amtrak. The Oklahoman is the chairman of the powerful House subcommittee that doles out money for transportation projects. Istook had previously sent his colleagues a letter that said, "Every dollar for Amtrak is a dollar less for other transportation funding, including projects in your state and your district."

The Amtrak supporters took the Istook letter as a general statement. Little did they know it was a preview of the grisly revenge he would wreak against them. Istook subsequently picked up an ax and massacred their pet projects.

For example, the Connecticut district of Rep. Rob Simmons lost $6 million for a new highway, $9 million for road widening and smaller sums for other items. During his re-election campaign last month, Simmons had told voters in his mostly Democratic ward that sending him, a Republican, to Washington would keep them in the good graces of the party in power.

Another Istook victim, Rep. John McHugh, of upstate New York, had been flattering the chairman for years. When he got money for a Canadian border crossing, in 2002, he thanked Istook with great servility. "I am thrilled that Chairman Istook and the subcommittee have honored my request," his press release read. There are reports that McHugh was so enraged by the Amtrak betrayal that he and Istook came close to blows.

Not only had Istook turned a disagreement into a backstab, but he crowned it with an act of supreme hypocrisy. While crying about the scarcity of transportation dollars, he earmarked $50 million for a new 10-lane highway in Oklahoma City.

Machiavelli advised: "If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared."

It is Istook's misfortune that McHugh is still walking around, as is Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican and another member of the Amtrak 21. McHugh and Weldon are members of the House Republican Steering Committee, which decides whether Istook gets to keep his job on the transportation subcommittee.

Istook may well fear for his future as a congressional "cardinal" who controls a vast budget. He has sent an apologetic note to the Republicans he savaged. And his spokesman recently noted that the Amtrak 21 did not have all of their projects cut from the transportation bill.

The bigger point is this: Liberals and moderates should start taking better care of themselves. Conservatives say they want a smaller federal government and stronger states. Great. Connecticut sends $19 billion more in taxes to Washington than does Oklahoma, which has virtually the same population. Imagine what Connecticut could do if it kept that money at home.

Conservatives don't want to spend money on Amtrak? Fine. Privatize the thing, cut it up, and let the weak lines die. The Northeast Corridor actually makes a profit. The Northeast states can plow those profits back into their transportation system. If they wish to upgrade service, they can tax themselves.

And if the good people of Oklahoma want a 10-lane highway, they should raise their own taxes or charge tolls to pay for it. Tolls are all the rage. Texas and Louisiana are now encouraging their metro areas to put tolls on their new roads. Tolls collected in 34 states rake in $6 billion a year.

As for public transportation, the Dallas-Fort Worth area is considering a sales-tax hike to pay for a regional rail system. And in Connecticut, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays wants a higher gas tax to improve commuter-train service.

Free the Amtrak 21 and send them to their state capitals. Let them create the transportation systems they want with their own cash. And rather than play humiliating money games in Washington, they should work to end them.

Froma Harrop is a Journal editorial writer and syndicated columnist. She may be reached by e-mail at: fharrop [at] projo.com.

From The Providence Journal

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http://www.taxfoundation.org/ff/taxingspendingupdate.html

Massachusetts only gets $.79 back for every buck the state sends to the treasury. Connecticut gets $.64. New York gets $.81. The blue states consistently give more money to the federal government than the red states, and get less back. The red states are vice-versa. Oklahoma gets $1.47 back for every buck it spends.

Dems should push a bill through Congress called the Tax Fairness Act that says each state gets the same amount back in funding and grants and programs that it paid to the federal government, within 1%. Let's see how conservative Oklahoma and Montana are when they face raising taxes by 60% or cutting a third of all of their funding for everything...

Remember, Bush isn't giving you back your money with tax cuts. He's taking America's money away.

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I love this quote:

Another senior administration official added: "Amtrak should be treated like any other form of transportation and funded like any other form of transportation. The other forms don't get operating subsidies."

A quick Google revealed the Federal Highway Administration's budget is around 33 billion dollars. Combined on top of state and local road spending, I guess that doesn't count as a subsidy! Where would all the trucking and automobile companies be without those subsidies?

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really up in the air on this one, first off Amtrak wastes millions of dollars in inefficiency, however I'd love to see more people abandon their gas guzzlers in favor of mass transit. Bush I think is right in one respect the organization needs to make a profit eventually--they've been saying that for 30+ years time's up Amtrak. What I would really like to see happen is the same thing that has hit the post office, UPS and Fedex like companies start operating mass transit again. 60 years ago their were hundreds of "mass transit" private companies providing a service and making a profit. Time to bring that back. If people add up insurance, gas, repairs, tires, oil changes, car washes etc. they'd find rapid transit gives them a free home entertainment system at the end of every year (in the savings they'd keep). Time to change the way we think of this. For the administration its a catch 22, subsidize something that so few people use it can't pay its way system wide or shut it down and discourage mass transit in major areas? If the vast majority don't want whats good for them should we still pay for it? What I suspect though is this is just another bloated organization living off the government teat that would clean itself up instantly if brought to FedEx/UPS type competition in metro transit.

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There is no country on the planet with a decent mass transit system that built it by private investment. The costs are simply too high for it to be able to compete against the highway and airline industry which are highly subsidized. (When was the last time an Airline built an Airport?)

If you level the playing field by ending subsidies for all transportation then this idea might have a chance. But ask the trains to compete unfairly against the automobile and planes, then it loses everytime. This is what killed off all of the private companies in first place.

Bush is doing what he his family has always done. Discourage public mass transit in lieu of highway and air travel. (because it burns a lot of oil) Amtrack has been around for 30 years, his family has been in the White House for 16 of those years. I think the failure is a result of his family's policies that have gutted mass transit. (look at what happened to HSR in Fla. )

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Feds' infrastructure role -- Treat rail like highways and airports

James Coston | February 4, 2005

AMERICA'S inter-city passenger-rail company, Amtrak, cannot survive much longer -- at least not in its current size and shape -- on the annual funding that Congress and the administration provide. That was the conclusion of the Transportation Department's inspector general, Kenneth M. Mead, in a report delivered Nov. 18. It ought to be heeded.

The administration wanted to provide Amtrak with $900 million this fiscal year. Congress came through with $1.2 billion, but Mead agrees with Amtrak Chief Executive David Gunn that even the higher figure is not enough to keep the full operation going.

"Unsustainably large operating losses," wrote Mead, "poor on-time performance, and increasing levels of deferred infrastructure and fleet investment are a clarion call to the need for significant changes in Amtrak's strategy. Continued deferral brings Amtrak closer to a major point of failure on the system, but no one knows where or when such a failure will occur."

Mead noted that on the Boston - New York - Washington Northeast Corridor -- the only substantial piece of railroad that Amtrak owns and controls -- century-old movable drawbridges could fail at any time for lack of upkeep or replacement. One such failure would close the line, forcing a massive, expensive, and probably unmanageable diversion of the region's business and personal travel to the already overburdened highways and airports.

Outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak rents tracks from the privately owned freight railroads. That infrastructure is more sound, but freight-train congestion and antique signaling throw passenger trains off schedule. Meanwhile, Amtrak's diversion of scarce capital funds to patch track along the Northeast Corridor leaves no money to rebuild or expand its small rolling-stock fleet. Ridership grew by double digits last year on key corridors in California, Washington state, and the Midwest -- but no funds are available for more cars or locomotives.

Whether it's the railroad falling apart in the East or the fleet failing in the rest of the country, Amtrak is not getting the federal support it needs.

Transportation Inspector General Mead did not say why this was happening, or what needs to be done about it. As a veteran Washington bureaucrat -- adept at ministering to multiple contending constituencies -- he eschews the blame game. Instead, he handed the job of sorting it out to Congress, which, after all, is the body that will have to fund any solution.

Mead wrote: "Congress needs to provide clear direction for Amtrak's operating and capital-investment priorities, as well as federal funding levels in reauthorization legislation." He suggested five possible strategies: Refocus on under-500-mile corridors, where fast trains outperform air and auto transportation; cut low-performing operations; increase funding to develop the entire system; provide funds only to maintain the status quo; or "any combination of the above."

That's an interesting slate of choices, but all of them amount to micromanagement unless Congress first takes a global step: It must stop treating passenger trains as a business and start treating them as a federal transportation program.

What does a federal transportation program look like? Simple: like our highway and airport programs.

The federal government doesn't operate the vehicles or market the service; there's no such company as "Amcar" or "Amflight." Instead, Washington helps the states fund a state-of-the-art infrastructure, which private operators have access to: highways for private cars and commercial motor coaches, airports for airliners.

Congress needs to stop focusing solely on Amtrak, a government-owned train company operating on obsolete private and public infrastructure, so that it can focus on getting matching funds out to states and communities that want to build up their inter-city railroad tracks and start running fast, frequent, comfortable trains -- for which people will pay to ride.

Several impatient states -- California, Washington, and North Carolina -- couldn't wait for a federal program, so during the go-go '90s they spent some of their taxpayers' money to build tracks and buy trains. Their programs are successful. In California, the 60 daily departures carry more than 4 million riders a year, and growth is quickly surpassing the capacity of the state-owned fleet.

But even rich states such as California have hit the fiscal wall -- much as Pennsylvania did in 1939, when it ran out of money to finish its new turnpike and had to wait for an emergency grant sought by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Unless Congress develops a federal-state matching-grant plan for railroad tracks -- like the highway program it started in 1916 and the airport-aid program it passed in 1946 -- passenger trains will continue to starve, highway and airport backups will grow, and Inspector General Mead's successors at the Transportation Department will continue to scratch their heads about why the federal government can't run a profitable train business.

Passenger trains used to be a profitable business many, many years ago, when railroads enjoyed a monopoly over mechanized overland transportation, and the federal government was not yet subsidizing two other travel systems to compete with trains. But those days are gone. To expect a passenger-train company to earn a profit on today's underfunded, obsolete, and reduced track network is an exercise in nostalgia.

Yet to expect fast, frequent, efficient trains to carry masses of travelers who now fly, drive, or stay home is the height of reality -- provided the funding is there for a railroad infrastructure as modern as the ones the government provides for cars and planes.

The key is our proven federal system of matching grants. It's amazing how much money a state will appropriate for a project when it knows that there's money waiting in Washington to match it. And it's amazing how eager entrepreneurs are to provide high-quality transportation once they're sure the government will keep funding the infrastructure.

Look at the airlines. They're broker than Amtrak, but they keep trying. They do because, win or lose, they know that the government will keep paying for the airports. Infrastructure assistance -- not operations -- is the federal government's proper role in an improved train system.

James Coston, who has worked for Amtrak and served on the Amtrak Reform Council, is chairman of NewTrains Leasing System, which provides financing for passenger-train equipment and infrastructure.

From The Providence Journal

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Several impatient states -- California, Washington, and North Carolina -- couldn't wait for a federal program, so during the go-go '90s they spent some of their taxpayers' money to build tracks and buy trains. Their programs are successful. In California, the 60 daily departures carry more than 4 million riders a year, and growth is quickly surpassing the capacity of the state-owned fleet.

This is very true. The NCDOT's daily train service between Charlotte and Raleigh (about 180 miles with stops in the all the larger municipalities between the two) has been quite successful and enjoys a lot of popularity. We would not have this service if it had been left to the devices of Amtrak. Because of this success and the fact that it actually making money, NC is teaming up with Virginia to build a high speed train mostly along this same route that would extend from Charlotte to Washington DC. Hopefully the federal funding will be there to make this a reality.

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Seems to me that, as Amtrak atrophies, states will contintue to pick up the tab. On the one hand, this is unfortunate, because the states are squeezed right now and national funding can help pick up the tab. I live in Washington State, where, as the article noted, the rail line (Amtrak Cascades) is partially state funded. It helps, for sure.

To save Amtrak, we may need to destroy it. America is just too big. Everyone talks about Europe and Japan's rail systems, which are indeed great, but impractical in a country our size. I think we need to focus on regional rail corridors and abandon the cross-country routes that lose a TON of money and are seriously behind schedule.

The problem is that once you abandon the cross-country routes, the Feds are no longer interested in funding it, because it doesn't service every state.

If you're at all interested in Amtrak I HIGHLY recommend this Christian Science Monitor Special Report on Amtrak. Tells you everything you need to know.

Cheers,

-Frank

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One of the interesting facts is that Japan Rail is actually 4 different companies that operate closely with each other to provide service. Japan Rail (actually Japan Railways group) was formed by privatizing and breaking up the old federally supported system, Japan National Railways.

Maybe the same approach should be used with Amtrak.

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Well its not really that bad we dont need national railways except for freight trains and in urban mass transit besides that we can just use our gas guzzlers :thumbsup:

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Personally I thinck bush is wrong in shutting down Amtrak.I love trains and rail travel and I thinck its really becoming more popular with people. And why would bush shut the system down if it's just had its best year in the companys 30 year history. As 25million people rode trains last year and on-time preformence grew by 30%. I thinck bush should at least give the company a few more years to keep it self up as it is finnaly going on the right track. But if Amtrak is shutdown i probly will still ride the rails as the carolinian and Piedmont pass threw my area every day.

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I support rail transit and even subsidizing cross country routes, but the system is broken. It's too expensive, takes too long, and is not for the most part an enjoyable experience. I don't know the solution but it needs fixed.

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I'm a big rail fan-logged many miles on Amtrak in California and through the NE cooridor. But it's time the free marketplace has an opportunity to compete. Out of this funding challenge comes new opportunity for entrepreneurs and visionaries to build and develop new options.

HSGTA is a great example of this.

http://www.hsgta.com/

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I support rail transit and even subsidizing cross country routes, but the system is broken.  It's too expensive, takes too long, and is not for the most part an enjoyable experience.  I don't know the solution but it needs fixed.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Boston to New York Acela is very enjoyable, it could be faster if the infrastructure got funding (like highways and airports do).

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I don't deny that at all. That's why I think the system needs to be fixed and not given up on. I'd love the fed to support more high speed rail networks across the us.

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Some states forget where the funding for alot of their infrastructure came from. Someday their cities will need mass transit and have the same urban problems that older places have under gone and I hope no Republican ass-wipe slashes their funding.

btw- Why don't highways have to pay for themselves in order to get funding?

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There are some new technologies coming for rail that should significantly reduce cost per mile. Expect a number of private companies to then jump in the fray...

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Amtrak of course is losing money due to the way we design and build our cities. We are a car dependent economy and as many have pointed out, that subsidizing highway and airplane is not a problem. We have built our lives and cities around cars and always have.

Also, I don't buy the argument that Amtrak is a long-distance rail service. I frequent Amtrak when I go to Michigan or downstate Illinois and much prefer to be on a train than in a car or plane.

We need to step back and ask ourselves WHY Amtrak is failing ... this government is so heavy on the market fixing every government expenditure and we worship the dollar so much that we are going to collapse one day in our own greed.

side-note

I am finally coming back from the living after an intense quarter at my school. I am almost done and am months away from my MASTERS!! yeah!

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It seems Amtrak just can't make ends meet.

Buying high speed train sets and maintaining and upgrading the rails to handle high speed trains.

Maintaining stations and repair shops, maintaining the older railcars and engines until upgrades for the new ones are in place.

Having to keeping a line from Missoula to Ukypa running at a loss so some senator will give his support in Washington.

Siphoning off the profits from the corridor to support those lines.

And to think, they even waste more money paying employees to keep all of this happening.

Hey Amtrak, where is all that money the government gave you going? I don't get it. You can't be broke again already.

I really can't see why Amtrak is in trouble. Maintenance, that's just nickel and dime stuff.

But, I do see why the government will not handle Amtrak's financial burden.

The government needs to do other things with that money. Like build more airports in more cities. And let any airline company they bailed out use them.

Pouring concrete for a bigger, better highway system that everyone needs to drive the cars they bought from the distressed car makers that the government also bailed out.

That reminds me I have to buy some more of that $3.00 a gallon gas before they run out.

Oh, I almost forgot we have to completely rebuild Iraq. George W. said we needed to blow it up.

So I guess we should replace it. Hey, it's only fair. We did blow up a lot of their country looking for dangerous things that were not there. It's only right that we should build Iraq some new condo's, a railroad, some airports and a state of the art satellite communications system complete with a Jacuzzi.

And It's only costing us 1.2 billion dollars.................... every three days.

Hmmm, 1.2 billion that number sounds familiar. Oh Yea, That's what Gunn needs to keep Amtrak running for a year. Well Frigg that!

George, Don't give em a dime! Rip up the North East Corridor and expand I-95 to 8 lanes. Each way.

Come on NASCAR fans everyday can be race day.

I've replaced, rebuilt, or repaired just about anything you can think of on a train.

I can say the guys I work side by side with spinning wrenches, wielding torches, bending stainless, running pipe and wiring motors, did one hell of a job keeping it going this long.

No one wants to ride on this dinosaur their taking the plane. Yep. Philly to Boston for $29. Tell me again there's no subsidy money for the airlines.

If your a railroader, you know as well as I, it's getting really difficult keeping the trains running safe with the dwindling resources we have.

No monies and fewer and fewer good parts equals an unsafe train.

I'd rather see no trains than unsafe trains.

I can not work like this, I will not work like this.

It's over, just let it go. Last one out get the lights will ya.

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