Sunday, November 20, 2005

My op-ed on the Bush Administration's Amtrak Policy

So a lot has gone down the past few weeks with Amtrak, a quick rundown:

Gunn said he was fired because "I just became an obstacle to dismantling Amtrak." Does Bush want to kill Amtrak? I don't know, so let me talk out my thoughts. The recent events may be another piece of the Bush policy to privatize everything, like social security, or to reduce the size of government. I think you can read Mineta's speech the other day as the administration wanting to transfer the finances of high traffic Amtrak routes, namely the NEC, to the states through which they run. This would cut down the Federal funding thus realizing a savings in the Fed's budget.

But can the states pick up the finances (NY, PA, MA, RI, CT, DE, DC)? Would they be interested, even with Fed grants to help out? States would be less interested in taking on more transit responsibility I'm sure. The states seem to support a hub in the states largest city and spokes out to the burbs. But Amtrak is less of this model and more city to city, state to state. I think most states simply pay rent (if you will) to Amtrak to use the NEC tracks that Amtrak owns. So this seems easy for the states, they have less maintenance headaches to deal with and just pay Amtrak money for track use.

And I'm guessing the states probably don't want to take on the Amtrak NEC business. The states just don't do this kind of business, I mean PA isn't going to care too much about a train from DC to Baltimore, or a train from Boston to NYC. The NEC is inter-state, albeit just a few states, and inter-state stuff traditionally falls in the province of the Federal government. So I would espouse that the federal government have the largest role in the NEC.

Another issue, the states in the NEC are all Democratic so there's likely some politics here with the current administration.

Perhaps by transferring control of the Amtrak NEC to either the states or a private company, Bush can save the Fed some money. Which is cool, they need to balance the budget so all options should be considered. However, it is worth noting that every form of public transportation is subsidized, namely airlines and highways (which are subsidized beyond gas tax). By transferring the NEC to the states or to a private company, and if Amtrak fails, Bush may be somewhat isolated from blame, while still saving money for the Fed budget and placing a burden on states that generally do not support Republicans gaining a sort of political victory. But if Amtrak were to fail the Fed would have to step in with money anyway negating potential savings.

Congress has approved over a billion in Amtrak funding in principle. So short term, like most of 2006 I'm guessing, Amtrak should function as is. So I think what's happening here is Bush forcing things but will look for a compromise. Bush policy tends to be a full speed ahead approach and Bush owns the Amtrak board so he has a lot of control here. Perhaps Congress will ask the states for more money to run on Amtrak tracks? Perhaps Amtrak will cut lines that don't make money? Perhaps Amtrak will have across the board cuts is service and staff? Combination of these? Or something like the status quo will continue onward?

My question as always - how does this affect my commute? I'm guessing there will be no problems through end of year and likely well into 2006, so I'm not overly concerned at the moment. But this all adds uncertainty to Amtrak, hence the need to monitor these matters ongoing, which I'll do and post here.


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