Amtrak: an economic locomotive

Americans are struggling to handle the unprecedented price of oil and gasoline. Oil has settled in over $130 a barrel, and gas has soared well above $4 a gallon in many communities throughout New England. This is crippling budgets of individuals and families that rely on their cars to get to work, school, and especially important as the weather warms, vacation destinations. On top of the direct cost of paying more at the pump, food and merchandise shipped from its origin to our local stores is more expensive — exacerbating already tight budgets.

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives followed the Senate’s lead in showing strong support for a viable alternative to clogged highways and high gas prices: a long-range commitment to Amtrak passenger rail. For years, The New England Council has been an important voice in Washington in supporting Amtrak.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of safe, efficient and comprehensive passenger rail to individuals, families and businesses throughout the East Coast and the nation. It is critical that House and Senate negotiators hashing out a final Amtrak bill seize the momentum created by the recent passage of the House version and show passenger rail a serious financial and strategic commitment that will put it on secure footing for the coming years.

Amtrak continues to serve as a critical piece of the transportation puzzle in the Northeast Corridor, and its recent record-breaking ridership numbers reflect its importance.

According to Amtrak’s statistics for fiscal year 2007, the Amtrak line running daily between Portland and Boston (the Downeaster) saw a significant increase in ridership in September 2007 than 12 months earlier and, “Ridership for the Downeaster rose by seven percent from FY Year ‘06 to FY ‘07, while ticket revenues climbed by 5.3 percent to $4.8 million during the same period.”

Last year, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., were in the top eight of the busiest stations in the country in total ridership, and more than 1,700 trains daily operated over some portion of the northeast. This accounted for nearly 9.5 million passengers last year. Without Amtrak, these travelers would have found an alternative way to arrive at their destination, further choking already congested highways and runways, or even worse, forgoing the trip and negatively affecting our regional and national economy.

Both Amtrak bills contain a serious commitment to the highly-trafficked Northeast Corridor, directing Amtrak to achieve and maintain a state of good repair on lines throughout the Northeast.

Long-term planning for Amtrak has not been addressed by Congress since the rail system’s current reauthorization expired in 2002, giving it no reasonable sense of security on a year-to-year basis. While the New England Council recognizes the appropriations process funds Amtrak on an annual basis, the bills passed by the House and Senate give Amtrak the blueprints to begin improving its efficiency, service and economic viability. It is nearly impossible for a business of any size to plan its future not having a reasonable sense of its overall financial position and congressional action will put Amtrak one step closer to operating on a sound footing where it can undertake any multi-year changes it deems appropriate.

James T. Brett is president of the regional business organization the New England Council.

Categories: Opinion