AMTRAK HAS spent its first 30 years as a quaint anomaly living on the
generosity of a Congress that could never decide whether to starve it or kill
Outside the Northeast Corridor, it has carried such a fractional sliver of
intercity traffic as to be in a class with the horse and buggy as a serious
transportation mode. While vast reaches of the country lost rail service
entirely in 1971, in others trains ran on infrequent schedules that required
them to roar through many towns at ungodly hours when most normal people were
As trains in Europe and Japan set new speed records almost daily, many
Amtrak trains crawled along at average speeds slower than schedules of 40 years
ago. Five entire states have no rail service at all. Ronald Reagan's
administration took the position that Amtrak should simply be allowed to go
bankrupt and then be liquidated.
Now the nation seems on the verge of discovering why this fiction of
Amtrak's necessity has been maintained for so long in the face of the certainty
that it would never generate the sort of revenues justifying subsidies
amounting to a gift from the federal Treasury to every Amtrak passenger.
If automobiles and planes continue to bear the burden of 95 percent of
intercity traffic, an increasing amount of the American landscape will have to
be paved over for airports and highways. Much of the interstate highway system
will have to be made to resemble the New Jersey Turnpike. Air traffic delays,
largely driven by trying to shoehorn more planes into existing airports, set a
record in 2000. Driver delays in the nation's largest cities are also up as
existing highways reach capacity. Environmental delays involved in building new
highways or airports make future projects increasingly uncertain.
In a study offered to support its new capital plan, Amtrak estimates that
it would cost $50 million a mile to add a third lane to Interstate 95 in
Connecticut and that a lesser investment in rail would yield better results.
The plan calls for $1.5 billion annually in capital investment for Amtrak over
20 years. In a federal budget of more than $2 trillion, one in which nearly $40
billion goes to transportation, this is hardly a lavish outlay for the nation's
most underutilized and neglected form of transportation.
It is arguable that previous operating subsidies to Amtrak have been money
down a rat hole to the extent that they have not diverted a significant number
of passengers to rail or increased rail's share of intercity traffic beyond
even two percent. But they have been cheap compared with the cost of creating a
new system from scratch had the shell of an interstate rail system not existed.
There are signs even Congress has succumbed to the idea that paving the
nation is no longer an unlimited option for moving people from city to city.
The capital spending proposal already has 51 co-sponsors in the Senate. It may
be a fraction of what it will take to provide a 21st-Century rail passenger
system that people will use in large numbers.
But, as a down payment, it's impressive.
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