Celebrating Train Day and Transportation Week
May is a month for celebrating transportation across the country. National Transportation Week was held May 14-20 and Train Day on May 11. For cities and towns, transportation is always a critical topic. Our multi-modal transportation network is essential to economic development and community vitality.
Amtrak and Train Day
On Saturday, May 11, train enthusiasts across the country gathered at beautiful downtown stations to celebrate National Train Day and the value of Amtrak passenger services to communities. The sixth annual event celebrated lots of good news for Amtrak: an influx of revitalized downtown stations are boosting economic development, tourism, and historic preservation efforts in communities across America. Amtrak is also celebrating ridership boots. Amtrak ridership and revenues are up for fiscal year 2012, with record ticket revenues of more than $2 billion and an unprecedented 88% recovery of operating cash costs. Both short distance and long distance routes continue to show increased ridership. At 31.5 million passengers last year, only five airlines carry more domestic passengers than Amtrak.
For every $1 in federal investment, Amtrak returns $3 back into the economy. Amtrak has an annual payroll in excess of $1 million in 39 states. But changes are ahead. The Passenger Rail Reauthorization Investment Act, which authorizes federal support for Amtrak (the passenger rail corporation) expires this year. Congress has started hearings to determine Amtrak’s future, funding levels and policy decision—and most important for Amtrak’s continued financial health—deciding the balance of funding for desperately needed capital and operating costs.
For a number of states, this summer will mean decisions on picking up the costs for short distance trains that are vital links to their communities. Under Amtrak’s 2008 authorization, states will have to assume responsibility for 28 short-haul routes or end the services by October 1. The New York Times tells the story of one of these short haul lines in the Central Pennsylvania town of Huntingdon, with two Amtrak trains per day as the only transportation option for citizens not willing or able to drive to Harrisburg, the state capital, and larger cities in the Northeast.
In the article Dee Dee Brown, Huntingdon’s (Pop. 7000) mayor, who often rides the train to Philadelphia said, “There is no bus service or airports nearby. It’s just the train, and, quite frankly, we would be a ghost town without it.”
For the State of Virginia, “We see good rail service as part of our overall transportation plans to reduce congestion on the highways, and the routes add to the economic vitality of our communities,” said Kevin B. Page, the chief operating officer of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
National Transportation Week and National Train Day celebrate the lifeline that Amtrak provides for Huntingdon, Pennsylvania and numerous rural communities. For suburban and urban communities, roads, bridges and public transportation – including rail, buses, and streetcars – provide access to jobs, to school, to medical appointments and all the other places that citizens go to in the course of their daily routines.
But the debate continues to swirl about how to pay for everything.
Regarding Amtrak’s need to have states pick up the cost of the short-haul transportation routes, Amtrak chief James Boardman told the New York Times “It’s what Congress has been doing for years, that is to push costs down to the state and local level.. It’s not going to be a windfall for Amtrak, but it will help reduce our costs.”
And that is the big question. The Senate debated a water resources bill this past week that will fund ports which help move goods from foreign places to every corner of the US.
Investment in Amtrak provides jobs in the communities the trains serve. Brand new locomotives purchased by Amtrak for the Northeast Corridor will improve Amtrak’s performance and create jobs in the communities where they will be manufactured.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, identified transportation investment as a critical issue for Congress and said it the government’s responsibility to get these people moving efficiently to work and play. Mr. Shuster’s committee will play a pivotal role in the debate on our national transportation system. Reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act, reauthorization of Amtrak and discussions on surface transportation programs which is up for renewal next year will focus on who pays and who makes decisions.
Local governments and their citizens are paying for transportation improvements and maintenance. Ballot initiatives across the nation are raising billions in revenue to fund transportation projects. We celebrated National Transportation Week May 14-20 and we must keep appreciating our national transportation network and all the components that move us and the nation. Critical decisions regarding the funding of that network and the federal role will last beyond National Transportation Week but the benefits should be celebrated every day.