Once again, Congress is embracing a no-frills approach to keeping Amtrak viable and whole for another year despite the Bush administration's efforts to diminish intercity passenger rail service. Recently, the House and Senate appropriations committees agreed to a modest increase in Amtrak funding from $1.3 billion this year to $1.4 billion in the House version and $1.37 billion in the Senate.
That may not fly with President Bush, who wanted only $800 million spent on Amtrak, a move that would have resulted in draconian cuts to service, particularly to parts of the country outside the Northeast. But if this kind of struggle over passenger rail service sounds familiar, that's probably because it is. Congress normally rides to Amtrak's rescue at the 11th hour, but generally only with enough money to maintain the status quo.
This is no way to run a railroad. How can Amtrak make intelligent choices about service when officials have no clue as to whether the dollars will be available to support their decision? Long-term planning under these circumstances is impossible.
The White House and Congress may complain about the system's inefficiencies (and in many cases, rightly so), but Amtrak's worst problem is aging and deteriorating infrastructure. Years of subsistence funding have only made matters worse. What kind of national highway system would the country have if the roads were similarly neglected? We'd be driving them at about 25 miles per hour on heavy-duty shock absorbers.
Alexander Kummant, Amtrak's president, recently observed that an overhaul of the Washington-to-Boston line would cost at least $7 billion. Even with that investment, Acela trains would make the trip at an average speed of 97 miles per hour. That pales in comparison to high-speed trains in Europe and Japan that regularly travel twice as fast and demonstrates the depth of this nation's neglect of rail.
A more rational approach would be for Congress to approve legislation sponsored by Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg authorizing more than $10 billion for Amtrak over the next five years. That's not enough to launch any significant high-speed rail project, but it would help put Amtrak on an even keel.
At minimum, a prudent, long-term financial commitment by Congress should be a starting point for plotting the future of passenger rail service. Trains are too energy-efficient and environmentally friendly to be ignored, and local governments can't underwrite them alone. Amtrak ridership is growing, and local commuter rail systems hold greater potential still - if Washington is willing to make the investment.