For the first time ever, Amtrak is expected to hit the 30 million milestone on Sept. 30. That's how many passengers it will have served over the previous 12 months, an annual increase in train ridership of 6.4 percent — a remarkably robust result given the nation's high unemployment rate and challenging economic circumstances.
That's something to be celebrated. The public's embrace of passenger rail recognizes both improvements in Amtrak and the diminishment of alternatives, as highways and air travel become increasingly congested. It's also a vote for clean energy; trains are a far more fuel-efficient means of travel than most other forms of motorized transport.
Yet Amtrak finds itself back in a familiar spot. Last week, a House appropriations subcommittee approved a 2012 funding bill that reduces Amtrak's operating budget by 60 percent and puts an end to state-supported routes in 15 states from New York to California.
The savings to the federal budget would be relatively small ($357 million), but the consequences for Amtrak and for the states would be huge. These so-called "short corridors" provide service to an estimated 9 million passengers annually, and the loss of those customers would raise costs for Amtrak's core operations, including those in Baltimore and the Northeast Corridor. Meanwhile, states are facing their own budgetary woes and would be hard-pressed to find a way to make up the loss of federal dollars and maintain service on the 150 trains affected by the decision.
Meanwhile, the same House panel has zeroed out funding for high-speed rail, one of President Barack Obama's signature transportation programs. Apparently, the Republican majority has decided that Americans aren't interested in the kind of fast, clean and efficient rail service that has become commonplace in other industrialized nations, from China and Japan to Europe.
There's a reason why the GOP attack on Amtrak funding sounds like a case of deja vu. President George W. Bush tried to zero out the passenger rail budget in 2005, and fiscal conservatives have made Amtrak the poster child for Washington's budgetary excesses for a decade.
But while Amtrak's failings are numerous, Congress has mostly itself to blame, as the organization has been chronically underfunded and micromanaged throughout its existence. Amtrak has never been able to provide European-style service because it's never had the budget to keep its infrastructure in anything close to that condition.
It's reasonable to argue what corridors would be best served by Amtrak or high-speed rail. Obviously, priority should be given cities with the greatest potential demand for service (an argument for upgrading the Northeast service above all, in our opinion). But killing the program entirely is extremely shortsighted at a time of rising gasoline prices and congested roads.
Conservatives like to attack government subsidies given to rail passengers while ignoring the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on highways and airports. Nor do they usually factor the cost of climate change and the nation's unhealthy dependence on foreign sources of oil into any cost-benefit equation.
The timing couldn't be worse. The proposal would kill jobs, not just at Amtrak but for those businesses that rely on the short-service trains that would lose federal support. How can Washington on the one hand pass any form of tax cuts or infrastructure spending, as President Obama has proposed in his jobs bill, while simultaneously killing economic growth with the other hand?
Amtrak's ridership numbers suggest Americans desire more alternatives in the nation's transportation network, not fewer. Passenger rail can work — if given the chance. The 125-mph (or faster) train is not some exotic rocket science; it's a way of life in much of the industrialized world.
This is not a matter of government excess but a prudent investment in this nation's economy and competitiveness. How unfortunate that some in Congress cannot see the difference.