America's national passenger rail system remains a vital cog in this nation's transportation system, despite some governmental criticism that Amtrak can't seem to set its own finances straight and probably won't meet a timetable to end subsidies.
With airport security tightening in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, in fact, rail travel merits support more than ever. But it will take more than smoothly engineered budgeting to meet Amtrak's financial challenge - it will take the vision to differentiate potential from experience, and see which offers the better track to tomorrow.
Before moving to restructure or dissolve Amtrak, Congress ought to consider a much bigger transportation picture that includes heavily burdened highways and increasingly clogged and vulnerable airports and air routes. With rail service developing high-speed corridors for intercity travel, now is not the time to derail an increasingly promising travel option.
Buffalo has an important stake in this. This city is a historic rail hub that could become the international portal on a high-speed New York-to-Toronto route, or the midpoint of a high-speed New York-to-Chicago run linked to the pioneering high-speed Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington.
Both routes now exist with slower Amtrak trains, and high-speed links already are being planned between New York and Albany and Chicago and Cleveland. The Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council is overseeing a marketing study of rail links between Toronto and other cities, through Buffalo. Add on proposals for a new downtown intermodal transportation center and Amtrak station in the former Memorial Auditorium, and the fact that more than 100,000 travelers already use the train stations here each year, and there are enough existing ingredients to merit a slice of the pie.
Faster trains already have captured 40 percent of the market that formerly used air or traditional rail services on the heavily used New York-to-Washington route, and 70 percent of the New York-to-Philadelphia commute. With outlying airports such as LaGuardia hard pressed for takeoff and landing slots, and new trains connecting city-center terminals in more travel comfort than costlier air shuttles, the development of high-speed rail corridors makes sense.
But Amtrak needs the resources to do that. Instead, it is struggling now to meet a five-year government deadline to wean itself off federal subsidies. If the service isn't self-sufficient a year from now, federal efforts will be launched to plan either a restructuring or liquidation.
The national passenger railroad's problems are not surprising, considering it never has had enough government transitional aid to solve its financial and operational problems or burnish a tarnished reputation for service. By commanding Amtrak both to become profitable and to continue serving money-draining routes instead of concentrating on high-demand corridors, Congress provided a recipe for failure. Under current mandates, Amtrak can neither build reserves nor properly plan long-term business strategies.
"We've asked them to operate like a private business, but we've forced them to operate like a government agency," said Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee.
The surprise is that Amtrak actually has been able to reduce its annual federal operating support from $318 million to $59 million over the past three years. By Washington standards, that's chump change. Currently, airports get about $14 billion in government aid a year, and gas taxes help pour $33 billion into highway projects. Government auditors estimate the total cost of developing 10 new government-designated high-speed rail routes at close to $100 billion.
Amtrak now is seeking Congressional approval to further that effort by raising $12 billion for high-speed rail projects over the next 10 years, through bond sales with government tax credits to avoid paying interest. The fight is over whether rail is worth developing, and whether Amtrak should get development money despite its struggle to meet the subsidy deadline. The answer to both is yes.