Thursday, April 30, 2015

Whither Amtrak's Long-Haul Routes?

Last month, the House of Representatives passed the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, which provides for a four-year, $7.8 billion authorization of Amtrak. Notably, the bill provides distinct appropriations for Amtrak's northeast regional service (Northeast Corridor) and its service in the rest of the country (National Network) and would - for the first time - prohibit the use of revenues from one service to subsidize the other.

This is important because Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is fairly popular - particularly among lawmakers who use Amtrak to get from DC to their districts around New England - and is in fact the only service Amtrak provides that is actually profitable (not including the cost of much-needed capital improvement projects along the corridor). These profits currently cover losses elsewhere in the system, so by severing the two services, the operating inefficiencies of the National Network will be more ostensibly exposed.

And that's just the point: The Hill points out that the provision is "an effort to force the company to streamline its longer routes," such as the California Zephyr which connects Chicago to California and which sees fewer than 400,000 passengers a year (compared to the Northeast Corridor's 11.4 million).

How would it do so? Through cost-sharing, according to a March 2013 Brookings Institute report. Essentially, states should have to cover some of the cost of operating the little-traveled long-haul routes that pass through their borders, just as states in which short, single-state routes are operated already have to do. With states on the hook for the financial well-being of these longer routes, they will be more inclined to take cost-cutting measures (e.g. cutting service on less popular routes). What's more, Washington could focus federal spending not on covering operating losses, but on the sort of large-scale infrastructure projects that would improve service, particularly in the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak owns its own tracks.

From the perspective of someone who rides the Northeast rails frequently, this seems at first blush to be an exciting proposition. But to someone out West, such a proposal could spell disaster for the National Network. As Senator Dick Durban (D-Ill.) asserts, taxpayer dollars from all over the country have been used in the past to finance the Northeast Corridor, so why should Western routes be left to wither on the vine now?

Ultimately, the debates over where rail should be operated in this country, and by whom, are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. But given the differences in rail ridership across the country and the federal government's need to prioritize spending, it is an important debate to have. If nothing else, this legislation starts that conversation and could signal to state governments that they should start thinking about how valuable their Amtrak service really is to them - do they still want it if they have to pay for it themselves?

The separation of the Northeast Corridor from the National Network is not all that's in the bill, by the way. The bill includes an amendment requiring Amtrak to submit a report on the feasibility of high-speed rail connecting Washington, DC to Boston, as well as amendments to improve safety at grade crossings. It also authorizes $1.2 billion for capital grants to states for new intercity passenger rail. And the United Transportation Union praises its inclusion of Buy America provisions, which ensure infrastructure projects financed by the bill's loan authorizations are built with American-made steel and other goods.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Fixing the Highway Trust Fund Finds Bipartisan Support

Between finding a deal for a permanent "doc fix," finally passing an important human trafficking bill and confirming Loretta Lynch to Attorney General, and now the rumblings of an education reform package, it seems like Congress may have finally hit its bipartisan stride.

This collaborative spirit has made its way into the transportation realm, with a bipartisan group of representatives introducing legislation to address the Highway Trust Fund's dire fiscal straits.

The Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act (H.R. 1846) provides for the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which will run out of money in less than two months without Congressional action. Specifically, the bill indexes fuel taxes to inflation, raising $27.5 billion - enough to fund highway and mass transit projects for 1.7 years. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget importantly points out, this money would be raised over 10 years and, rather than paying for highway projects directly, would essentially pay back additional borrowing from general revenues, which have been used lately to make up for the Fund's shortfalls.

The legislation also establishes a bipartisan, bicameral Transportation Commission tasked with considering all options to fund the HTF for at least three more years. Should Congress fail to pass the Commission's recommendations, the gas and diesel user fees will increase by the necessary amount to sustain the Fund for that time. Here's a great graph from CRFB illustrating what will happen with the gas tax under the different possible scenarios:

While illustrative, the chart is also concerning: raising the gas tax, even when gas prices are at historic lows, is still politically difficult. But something needs to be done: our transportation infrastructure is simply too important - to our economic prosperity and to traffic safety - to let the Fund remain on such unstable footing.

There are other options on the table, some of which the Commission will no doubt consider if and when it is convened: the selling of bonds, the creation of Public-Private Partnerships, the institution of a carbon tax, to name a few. But it is good to know that, even if Congress fails to act, this bill would still provide for the sustainability of the HTF. Perhaps the default option's unpopularity will force Congress to pass a more palatable solution.

Then again, that's also what we thought with the sequester.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Welcome to TransportUS

TransportUS is a new blog focused on transportation policy in America. The field of transportation policy is diverse: it includes everything from freight policy, to high-speed rail, to airport security, to Complete Streets. That said, this blog doesn't purport to cover every news item in the realm of transportation policy; rather, it is a space for me to write about the developments I find most interesting and important. I hope you'll read along and chime in with your own thoughts in the comment section.

About the Author
Alexander Laska is a policy and communications professional with experience in the legislative and executive branches. He is currently seeking a Master of Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Prior to coming to Maxwell, Alexander worked in a congressional office for a New England Democrat. Alexander grew up in Southwest Connecticut and received his B.A. in political communication from the George Washington University.