By Leslie Wollack
On May 11th Amtrak, the national passenger rail system, will celebrate National Train Day in cities across the country. These events taking place everywhere from Brunswick, Maine to St. Paul, Minnesota to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon. These cities and many places in between will be part of a nationwide salute to trains and train travel.
Amtrak also will celebrate their continued growth in ridership with March of this year becoming the busiest month in the system's 40-year history. According to Amtrak figures, 26 of 45 routes posted ridership increases and the system anticipates meeting or exceeding last year's record 31.2 million passengers. Amtrak officials headed to Capitol Hill last week for hearings on the 2014 federal budget and reauthorization of federal passenger rail programs which expire in September 2013
Amtrak officials are requesting less operating support and an increase in capital investment. The decreased need for federal operating support is due to an increase in ticket sales which have helped Amtrak cover about 88 percent of its operating costs. The railway was the subject of a number of hostile hearings in the past few years, but the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) has expressed support for a more moderate and bipartisan approach to the future of the system.
Rep. John Denham (R-CA) chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials hearing on Amtrak reauthorization that will begin the reauthorization debate. "The starting point for this reauthorization is Amtrak and the Administration's respective budget requests," said Denham. "Chairman Shuster and I are committed to Rail Reauthorization this year and hopefully this hearing will continue this bipartisan effort."
Amtrak was created as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation by Congress in 1970as a for-profit corporation and charged with responsibility for providing intercity passenger rail transportation. Prior to creation, freight rail companies were required by federal law to operate passenger rail services.
DOT had responsibility for designing Amtrak's route system to include short-to medium distance corridors and a long-distance network.
Beginning with a 23,000 route-mile system, connecting 21 city-pairs in 1971, Amtrak today serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states and 3 Canadian provinces on more than 21,200 miles of routes. In addition to the 300 daily Amtrak trains, an average 850,000 people travel on Amtrak commuter trains operated under contract every weekday.
Amtrak funding is authorized by Congress. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, provided $2.9 billion for five years, including $2.9 billion in operating grants and $6.7 billion in capital and debate service. The President's FY 2014 budget requests $40 billion, five-year rail authorization designed to improve intercity passenger rail and high-speed rail corridors.
In his testimony before the Committee, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo emphasized the need to look at transportation holistically and choose the mode that best serves that function. The proposal's key priorities include safety, modernizing the rail infrastructure, meeting growing market demand with increased needs to move people and goods, promoting innovation and ensuring transparency and accountability.
Administrator Szabo also reiterated the need for sustained, predictable long term funding to help the railway system plan for the future.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution calls for states to play a greater role in supporting Amtrak. The study suggested requiring states to share operational costs for Amtrak's longest routes, which states currently are not required to support.
NLC supports a long range national vision and commitment to funding for passenger rail and will participate in the upcoming national debate to reauthorize Amtrak and support its future capital needs. Local officials wanting to get involved in the national debate to support Amtrak can begin by building community participation and planning your event for National Train Day.
For more information on National Train Day visit: http://www.nationaltrainday.com/s/