Members of Congress responsible for our nation’s transportation systems, including our national passenger rail system, are once again considering the reauthorization of Amtrak. The choice is clear: give Amtrak the resources it needs, or choose the routine ritual of starving it and wondering why we don’t have faster trains and more service.
As a backdrop, we are in an era where backward thinking by a few is holding up vital investments in our economy like a modern Amtrak network that can shorten travel times and offer Americans safe service that reflects 21st century technology. Since when has the rest of the world out-innovated us? Why can China and Europe plan for a 300 mph train while we chug along at double digit speeds in most places? Answer: because austerity-at-any-cost extremists in Congress have wielded too much power in Washington.
For those who will lead the rewrite of Amtrak law, let’s be clear: no country on the face of the earth has created an efficient national passenger rail system without large-scale public funding and extensive government oversight. It can’t be done. And even those who claim private companies do it better overseas, conveniently ignore that those “private” entities are using publicly funded infrastructure. Facts are stubborn here.
Amtrak is operating with infrastructure that was built in the middle of the last century and in some cases the late 19th century. It has been set up to fail by some who want to starve it first and then declare it a failed government program.
Given that Americans of all political stripes support Amtrak, there’s no reason for the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) to fall victim to the kind of extremist congressional antics we have seen in the last couple years. Let’s remember that in 2008, PRIIA received broad bipartisan support and was signed into law by that liberal President Bush.
Here are the essential elements of a plan:
- Adequate Funding: Reauthorizing Amtrak will mean little unless Congress approves the long-term federal funding needed to implement a true modernization plan.
- Recognition of Amtrak as the lynchpin of our national network: Amtrak has an established national network which includes an extensive reservation system, mature relationships with the freight railroads, a skilled workforce, the physical infrastructure needed to support high-speed rail initiatives and decades of demonstrated compliance with all federal rail safety requirements.
- Safeguards against privatization and contracting out schemes: The misguided attempts to put Amtrak in private hands and sell off its assets must end. So should attempts by some to contract out the jobs of onboard Amtrak professionals. Amtrak was created because private passenger rail service went bankrupt–let’s not go down that road again.
- Stronger Buy America provisions: Investment in Amtrak offers a great opportunity to create manufacturing jobs here at home by strengthening PRIIA’s Buy America requirements consistent with our Jobs to Move America coalition agenda.
- Vigorous worker protections: Amtrak has a dedicated and experienced workforce that will be critical in rolling out, operating and maintaining new passenger rail services. These workers must be treated fairly.
- Long distance trains: A national passenger rail system cannot be limited to the busy Northeast corridor. We must find a way to ensure that all Americans across this country have reasonable access to Amtrak service.
For those in Congress who get squeamish at the thought of a major financial investment by the federal government, consider this: polls have shown that people support public funding for Amtrak, whether they are liberal or conservative, big city or rural. The people want it, and they know it won’t be free.
In other words, if you fund it…they will ride it.