George Chilson: Time to take the train - Published Dallas Morning News Op-Ed, August 11, 2005

George Chilson: Time to take the train
Rail transportation would improve economy, quality of life
Dallas Morning News Op-Ed
Thursday, August 11, 2005
© 2005 The Dallas Morning News Co.

With soaring gasoline prices, the highway congestion epidemic and air travel in turmoil, Texans are discovering passenger trains.

In the last two years, public use of Amtrak’s trains has risen 17 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth, more than 30 percent in Austin, 40 percent in Longview and nearly 60 percent in Temple. Statewide, ridership has jumped more than 20 percent, despite extremely limited service: Dallas-Fort Worth has just two routes. One is financed entirely by Oklahoma. Each has just one train a day. Houston and El Paso have only one route with just three trains a week. Many key markets like Dallas-Houston have no service at all.

There are two significant reasons why Texas – the nation’s second most populous state – doesn’t have more trains to more places.

Since 1971, when Congress cobbled Amtrak together to relieve financially crippled railroads of their obligation to run passenger trains, the federal government has provided $1.9 trillion in subsidies, much of it from dedicated taxes, to highways and aviation. Intercity passenger train service did not benefit from a similar assured funding stream. Amtrak had to beg annually for scraps at the appropriations table and never received the resources needed to expand into new and growing markets.

Congress created Amtrak as a corporation expected to make a profit in a business where private industry had failed. That unrealistic expectation enabled critics to brand Amtrak a failure and claim that funding for rail lines was “wasteful subsidy,” while spending for highways and air was a “sound investment.” Had Congress created Amtrak as a public agency to provide essential service, expectations would have been more realistic and Amtrak’s history much different.

Polls demonstrate that Americans want more and better passenger-train service. Ballot initiatives committing tax dollars for rail lines are now passing by large margins in growing numbers, including one last fall for commuter rail service in Austin. The message is clear: Americans want the high-quality mobility that rail lines provide.

The Bush administration wants more from Amtrak. It is demanding reform and has proposed zero funding for Amtrak to make its point. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta has hammered this theme repeatedly. Point taken – zero funding means zero trains.

Now, the Amtrak board, led by former TxDOT chairman David Laney, has delivered reform. It has adopted and begun implementing a comprehensive overhaul of Amtrak that includes federal/state match funding similar to highway, aviation and transit programs, introduction of competition where it makes sense, and preservation of national service.

The next step must come from Congress. The House and Senate are working toward appropriations that are significantly higher than the shut-down budget the administration proposed, though still far less than what Amtrak’s board has said it needs.

Last week, Sen. Trent Lott introduced a bill that begins the legislative process that can revitalize a reformed Amtrak and invigorate passenger-rail service throughout the nation. The Bush administration has achieved its objective. It should now declare victory and support adequate funding. Reform is on the way.

The great misconception about Amtrak is that its national network, which provides the basis for all service in Texas, is wasteful and unused. In fact, last year more than a quarter-million people got on and off Amtrak trains at Texas stations. This service adds only $300 million to Amtrak’s funding needs – a fraction of the $1.2 billion Amtrak would need for just the Northeast Corridor. Yet the Northeast Corridor, busy as it is, accounts for just 30 percent of Amtrak’s total passenger miles; the national network accounts for nearly half. The national network delivers 50 percent more transportation at 75 percent less cost. That’s efficient, not “wasteful.”

As our leaders gather at the Texas Transportation Summit in Irving this week, they should seriously consider adopting rail transportation as a cost-effective strategy for improving our state’s mobility, economy and quality of life. Investment in rail lines will deliver higher-quality mobility faster and at a lower cost than other modes. The rights of way are already there – no land grabs required.

Amtrak’s service in Texas provides a foundation for such expansion. It offers connectivity with the regional commuter and light rail systems developing in the state. Funding Amtrak’s needs today is a sound investment in our – and our children’s – future.

George Chilson is a Dallas resident and president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

© 2005 The Dallas Morning News Co.