Grand Plan Could be a House of Cards

Amtrak has yet to release its grand plan of urban oriented corridors with multiple daily frequencies but has dropped hints in recent months about what it will look like.

The most recent hint came in a legislative hearing in Kansas. A senior Amtrak public affairs executive indicated the passenger carrier will seek millions, if not billions, from Congress to help states pay for the capital and operating costs of the new services Amtrak would like to provide.

That would include extending the Heartland Flyer into Kansas and creating a new route between Atlanta and Nashville.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson has said there are numerous unserved and underserved urban pairings, many of them in the South and West, which could be part of this new network.

But he has yet to release an actual map of those routes.

In advance of the release of the Amtrak plan, which is expected to be part of the carrier’s proposal for a surface transportation bill Congress is expected to take up later this year, the carrier has apparently launched a public relations tour of states that would benefit from it.

The strategy appears to be to seek political support among members of Congress from those states.

So why do I keep thinking it’s all a pipe dream?

There is no assurance Congress will approve the funding Amtrak is banking on to help pay for its urban corridor network.

That’s critical because in the Kansas legislative committee hearing an Amtrak official acknowledged that the cost of starting these new routes is more than states are going to be willing to pay.

But consider also some recent developments in places where states are already funding corridor service, have funded it in the past or where funding for new service is close to becoming reality.

In Missouri the state transportation director told lawmakers the Show Me State is in arrears in paying for the twice daily Missouri River Runner service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has suggested increasing funding for Amtrak service, but one lawmaker suggested instead the legislature rethink funding Amtrak at all.

Although Anderson cited Chicago-Indianapolis as an example last year of the “new look Amtrak” when testifying before a congressional committee, the Indiana legislature declined to continue funding the Hoosier State between the two cities and it ended after its last trips on June 30, 2019.

In Virginia, the news of late has focused on a plan to expand Amtrak service as part of an ambitious $3.7 billion project.

But in the southwestern corner of the state efforts by officials in Bristol to get Amtrak service extended to their city have stalled in part because host railroad Norfolk Southern walked away from the negotiations.

A proposed service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, has encountered opposition from within Alabama.

The governor declined to support that state’s share of funding for the service even though the neighboring states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to provide funding to match a federal grant.

The service may be doomed if the Mobile City Council votes today against a resolution to approve $3 million in local funding for operating expenses of the route for three years.

It may be that funding will materialize in Alabama. NS will come back to the table in Virginia and the Missouri legislature will agree to provide the funding MoDOT wants.

Yet one of the Missouri lawmakers who is skeptical about continued funding of Amtrak summed up what all of these cases have in common when he said budgeting is about setting priorities.

No one would disagree with that but there is wide disagreement about whether passenger rail is or should be one of those priorities.

If Amtrak’s still-to-be released plan is to succeed, it will hinge on getting buy in Congress, state legislatures and host railroads.

In some instances, states will be asked to make a financial commitment for something they’ve never funded before.

There are sure to be some who will argue that limited public dollars are better spend on other priorities such as education, public health, public safety and highways.

I’ve long wondered if the urban corridors concept being pushed by Anderson and others at Amtrak is a ploy for something else.

It might be discontinuing long-distance trains or finding source of funding that can be used to collect “overhead” costs that go toward other Amtrak priorities.

There is a popular theory in some rail passengers circles that the national network is being used to prop up the Northeast Corridor so Amtrak can continue the fiction that it is profitable.

Anderson and the Amtrak board of directors might sincerely believe they can talk Congress into giving them the money that a Kansas legislative committee was told about recently.

And if those funds fail to materialize?

The urban corridors network will fall like a house of cards. Yet I’m not sure it wasn’t always a house of cards anyway.

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