By DAVID A. MITTEL
THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL
BOSTON -- Amtrak, now in its 35th year, looks as if it may continue operating in a way that satisfies neither friend nor foe.
Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta made a dramatic zero-funding proposal -- offering federal assistance only for Amtrak's role in commuter operations in the Northeast Corridor.
This shot at Amtrak was hardly the first by the executive branch. Brock Adams, Jimmy Carter's transportation secretary, proposed much the same thing in 1979; and Ronald Reagan famously singled out Amtrak for his wrath in his 1984 State-of-the-Union speech.
Mineta's "shot" was less devastating than it seemed. The secretary would like to put federal support for trains on the same basis as that for roads, metropolitan-area mass transit and other public works: The federal government would match state spending at between 50 and 80 cents on the dollar. States would take the lead in developing intercity routes, with a federal financial incentive.
Zero-funding thus wasn't to be taken at face value. "Reform now, money later!" the Transportation Department's general counsel intoned. But Amtrak's supporters in Congress did take the threat literally. Congressmen of both parties, representing states along 18 long-distance routes, rallied to the defense. Last week, the House voted 269-152 for a $1.17 billion appropriation that includes funds to keep these money-losing trains running for at least another year.
This vote continued the political trade-off that has kept Amtrak alive, but really only limping along, for 35 years: The price for federal support for trains in the urban corridors that carry most of the passengers is support for trains through small towns -- many of them without bus or plane service, some with declining populations, and a few serving Indian reservations.
No business sense
These trains stopped making business sense at least 50 years ago. Arguments for saving them may be political, social, historical, moral or cultural. But they cannot be economic, except in the sense of trying to avoid instigating the economic collapse of certain threatened Great Plains communities.
Consider the economics in two examples: The daily Empire Builder, connecting Chicago; St. Paul; Grand Forks, N.D.; Wolf Point, Mont.; Sandpoint Idaho; Spokane, Wash.; and Seattle and Portland, loses $206,301 a day. The daily Southwest Chief, connecting Chicago; Kansas City; Topeka; Lamar, Colo.; Albuquerque; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Los Angeles, loses $333,698 a day.
Fifty years ago, long-distance routes such as these carried many trains each day. But today, an infrastructure of stations, ticket agents, baggage handlers, custodians, Amtrak police, etc., exists to support a single daily train in each direction. Twenty minutes of hustle and bustle twice a day -- then 23 hours and 20 minutes as if the stations were in ghost towns.
The service on these routes is generally excellent -- I've ridden many of them. But there is no way that most of the 18 long-distance routes the House has voted to save could survive end point to end point without continuing to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.
I think Secretary Mineta probably has it right in wanting to shift funding for intercity trains to a federal-state partnership, and away from an annual congressional outlay that depends on the collusion of congressmen, each of whom is unwilling to look beyond protecting the status quo in his district. But Mineta's zero-funding opening was a political blunder, because it only served to rally the status quo's defenders.
What is needed is a transitional policy that would shift funds and responsibility for intercity trains to the states or to interstate cooperatives on a phased basis, and in a way that would give rural states a real chance to keep their trains running if their legislatures wanted to put up some of the money.
At the moment there seems to be very little middle ground between three extreme positions: 1) Those hell-bent on killing off Amtrak -- their favorite symbol of political expediency. 2) Those hell-bent on preserving every whistle stop, despite that the effect of their utter unwillingness to rationalize service has (for instance) left a city the size of Cincinnati served by three trains a week -- all arriving in the middle of the night. 3) Visionaries who speak of a 200-mile-an-hour Boston-Montrial train, despite the fact that, to date, the United States has failed to get its only semi-high-speed route, the Acela from Boston to Washington, running right.
Amtrak has hundreds of congressionally or contractually mandated inefficiencies -- six years' pay for laid-off workers is one that comes to mind. In that sense, Amtrak is part of the problem -- as are congressmen who resolutely refuse to revisit the inefficiencies they have imposed.
But being, for the time being, the only entity with the competence to run passenger trains across America, Amtrak is also part of the solution. Now is not the time for the futile exercise of trying to kill it. Rather, this is the time for compromise: for a practical plan that preserves most existing service for the time being; offers real reforms; and has a vision for the future.
X David A. Mittell Jr. is a member of The Providence Journal's editorial board.