|Rethinking Manifest Destiny|
|Written by David Stern|
|Tuesday, March 17, 2009 12:02 AM|
In the wake of rising gas prices and greater concentrations of Americans living in metropolitan areas, public transportation usage increased over 5% in the last year. America’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling, and in some cases collapsing, yet many continue to call for the death of that frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars, that model of nationalization’s inevitable failure – Amtrak. Although Amtrak has consistently failed to address problems within its organization, with reform it has the potential to not only be a profitable investment of taxpayer dollars but a vital institution to the United States as well.
Amtrak’s travails date long before it was born out of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970. The private railroad companies that transferred their operations to Amtrak (National Passenger Rail Corporation) were struggling for decades to compete with the proliferation of air and automobile travel. Now, Amtrak still has not made an annual profit but it is not incapable of doing so. The northeast corridor, the track that connects Boston to New York to Washington D.C., actually makes a profit. About 80% of Amtrak’s losses occur on routes that only account for 15% of ridership. These routes are over 700 miles long; they are maintained primarily to provide rural service and to maintain the nationally interconnected system. The policy of maintaining these dead weight routes should be abandoned in favor of a more regional-intensive approach and the provision of bus service to low-ridership routes.
Intensifying regional hubs can be achieved by focusing traffic around Amtrak’s already highly routed cities: San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, and the Northeast corridor. By concentrating service around regional hubs, Amtrak could provide more frequent service as more trains cover a smaller area. As it operates now, Amtrak serves regions like the Southeast, where trains come through as little as once a day. The costs of maintaining service on these tracks hardly justify their preservation over the alternative use of bus service.
In order to maintain a semblance of an interconnected system, the federal government should subsidize the high-speed rail technology long ago adopted in Europe and East Asia. These trains can provide intercity service between the major hubs, and serve as a price competitive alternative to air travel. Maglev trains – those that are propelled by magnetic forces rather than wheels – could also compete with air travel in terms of time efficiency. Not only are these trains markedly more sustainable than the competition, their maintenance costs are only a fraction of their wheeled peers. New tracks would be costly, but building them would create jobs for many Americans during this economic downturn. Ownership of the lines would also give Amtrak trains right of way; Amtrak currently operates on private freight rail lines and most delays are caused by Amtrak trains having to yield to passing freight trains.
As it exists now, Amtrak cannot continue to be subsidized without a massive overhaul. It also cannot be ignored until it becomes a mere vestige of a formerly great American institution. This is an opportunity to restore greatness to the shameful state of America’s transportation infrastructure. We must not let it pass.