‘Amtrak Joe’ May Favor Passenger Rail, But That Doesn’t Mean a Pending Passenger RenaissanceHeadline

President-elect Joseph Biden is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because during his time in Congress he commuted to Washington aboard Amtrak.

Biden took an interest in the intercity passenger carrier and former Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs told Trains magazine this week he believes Biden will be supportive of Amtrak’s national network.

The Biden administration won’t be taking office for another two months and it remains to be seen what policy positions it will take and how those will affect rail passenger service.

I would not expect, though, Biden’s election to presage the type of robust passenger rail renaissance that rail passenger advocates have dreamed about for decades in which federal funding spigots gush forth billions of dollars to fuel large scale rail passenger expansion.

What might be more realistic is the type of stimulus funding for specific improvement projects that the Obama administration pushed through Congress in its first two years.

That did not, though, result in any expansion of Amtrak’s long-distance network and only a minimal effect on corridor services.

It remains to be seen what the new administration’s position will be toward federal funding of intercity rail service, particularly the long-distance routes. Past administrations have sought to shift funding for the latter to the states served by those routes.

There has been just enough political support of federal funding of the long-distance routes on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate to keep that funding flowing. I would expect that to continue during the Biden years.

I would expect a Biden administration to be less hostile toward funding Amtrak’s national network.

You won’t see budget proposals calling for replacing long-distance trains with buses as a first step toward phasing out federal funding of the long-distance network.

Biden budget proposals might seem to favor expanding the national network through a proposed infrastructure program.

But don’t expect to see anytime soon, if ever, increased frequencies of service on existing routes, say, two or three trains a day between Chicago and New York, or new long-distance routes.

Likewise, what position will the Biden administration take on supporting federal funding for corridor service? Many passenger advocates want repealed a federal law requiring routes of less than 750 miles to be paid for by state and local funding. Getting that done won’t be easy.

A Biden administration will be receptive to spending federal dollars on such Northeast Corridor projects as the Gateway Project to build new tunnels leading into New York City.

There is a long list of capital improvements for the NEC on Amtrak’s wish list, yet it remains to be seen how many of those will benefit from federal funding directed their way with the help of Biden administration support. Some probably will but not necessarily all of them.

The future of rail passenger service hinged on how much money Congress is willing to spend on it.

We’ll get a preview of that soon because lawmakers must approve another continuing resolution to extend authorization for federal spending in fiscal year 2021, which began more than a month ago, or approve an FY 2021 budget plan.

Amtrak has been adamant that without more money than it asked for earlier this year – just over $2 billion – it will have to furlough more workers and make additional service cuts.

It is not yet a sure thing that Amtrak will get the additional funding it wants.

There continues to be talk about another round of emergency pandemic spending and, of course, Amtrak wants a cut of that, too.

Yet the same conservative senators who opposed a stimulus package before the election can be expected to continue to  balk at what they view as excessive pork barrel spending that further balloons the national debt.

How much money the Biden administration will be able to get for transportation spending will hinge on the makeup of the next Congress. Democrats have retained control of the House of Representatives, albeit by a slim margin.

In a best-case scenario for Biden, the Senate will be split 50-50 between the two parties with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes. Yet Republicans may well continue to control the Senate.

In his interview with Trains, Downs predicted it would be some time before Biden’s influence over Amtrak and passenger rail will be felt.

The incoming president’s initial agenda will be dominated by responding to the pandemic and other pressing national and global needs.

How many times a week Amtrak’s Southwest Chief operate is not on that list.

Perhaps the best that will happen during a Biden administration is Amtrak’s route network eventually will return to whether it was in January 2020.

Most long-distance trains will operate daily again and all of the suspended state-funded corridor service will be restored. That won’t happen overnight.

I expect more studies, lots of speeches and many proposals couched in how environmentally friendly passenger rail is.

Those don’t cost much, but when it comes down to actually paying for those ideas, that’s another matter altogether,

That why rail passenger service in the United States remains limited and will continue to be so other than, perhaps some incremental changes.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: