Greater Greater Washington

Breakfast links: Let's play politics


Photo by theilr on Flickr.
GOP would privatize Northeast Corridor: House Transpor­tation chair John Mica (R-FL) and fellow Republicans are proposing to privatize Amtrak's Northeast corridor, having a private company operate it and upgrade to high-speed service.

Mica thinks upgrades can happen in a third the time Amtrak is proposing, and also thinks this would reduce federal subsidies by drawing private investment. But is it realistic for private industry to do all that with less money? Democrats point out that all transportation systems need government support. (Post)

House committee would halt St. E's: The House Appropriations Committee would halt construction of the DHS complex at St. Elizabeths, according to the Homeland Security budget they passed out of committee yesterday. (CQ, Gavin)

Bill has a few BRAC fixes: A defense bill passed by the House would limit parking at the Mark Center in Alexandria, where Virginia officials fear BRAC moves will overwhelm the transit-poor area with traffic. It will also let DoD delay some moves and spend some of its money on transportation improvements outside the bases. (Post)

Gas tax holiday for holidays?: Maryland's elected comptroller wants to eliminate the gas tax on holiday weekends. The move would cost the state $2 million a day. (WTOP)

Bulova wants GMU precinct: Fairfax County Board Chair Sharon Bulova wants a voting precinct for George Mason University, citing current difficultly for on-campus students to vote. County Republicans accuse her of partisan gerrymandering. (Examiner)

Barry, Brown tussle: Marion Barry tried to talk over the objections of committee co-chair Michael Brown at yesterday's redistricting hearing. There's video of a long and hilarious verbal battle for the microphone. Barry is also threatening a lawsuit if he doesn't get Near Southeast. (DCist, Examiner)

Carjackings raise questions: A pair of recent carjackings at Metro stations, one of which resulted in the non-fatal shooting of a victim, has some questioning the safety of WMATA's parking garages. (WAMU) ... Perhaps more alarming, Metro Transit police failed to mention the incidents for nearly a week. (WUSA)

CaBi opens eyes: Riding Capital Bikeshare recently made New Yorker Sarah Goodyear "see [DC] in a whole new way," seeing connections between neighborhoods as never before. Veronica Davis talks about a client who had a similar experience. (Grist)

And...: If you thought 7th & H or M & Wisconsin are busy pedestrian intersections, check out Tokyo's Shibuya district. (Atlantic) ... 4 Orange/Blue stations on Capitol Hill will close for the weekend. (Post) ... With new spokesperson Dan Stessel, WMATA is now Tweeting back to customers @metroopensdoors.

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Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 

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Privatization of Amtrak's NE Corridor track is a recurring position. If it works like privatization in the UK it will mean higher prices and poorer service. "Access to private investment" means debts with users will be paid for by users. Given that Mica's homestate rejected rail on ludicrous, short sighted grounds, he seems like the last person to be making proposals.

by Rich on May 27, 2011 9:00 am • linkreport

But is it realistic to expect private industry to do more with less money?

This is great news. Anytime the government steps out of a business which isn't inherently governmental, that business, now infused with a profit motive, skyrockets in terms of service and innovations.

Just look at what happened when the government got out of only regulating the phone industry. Had they not done that, it's likely we'd still be using dial phone literally attached to the wall. There'd be no cell phones, no broadband, no Internet ... you name it. And that's an example where the government was just heavily regulating it.

by Lance on May 27, 2011 9:03 am • linkreport

It's still not clear to me what Mica is proposing.

There have been ideas of splitting Amtrak into two entities. Amtrak can continue as an operator of service. Another agency (call it AmRail) would take ownership of the infrastructure and be responsible for upgrading the tracks themselves to UIC HSR standards, including bridging the gaps for all the necessary FRA rule changes therein. This is basically France's model - SNCF was split in two, and there are separate entities that build track and run trains.

That opens the door for multiple operators to use a set of AmRail tracks. It would also open the door to operators making use of best practices for passenger rail, instead of Amtrak's antiquated operating procedures.

And Lance - no internet if the Government had continued regulating telecoms? Are you actually aware of the internet's history?

by Alex B. on May 27, 2011 9:15 am • linkreport

Fairfax County Board Chair Sharon Bulova wants a voting precinct for George Mason University, citing current difficultly for on-campus students to vote. County Republicans accuse her of partisan gerrymandering.

Hey, that's refreshing, a politician not completely stymieing students and just abusing them as voting cattle, like most politicians do. Go Bulova!

Oh, and "partisan gerrymandering" is a pleonasm, like "hypocrite politicians".

by Jasper on May 27, 2011 9:23 am • linkreport

Well, its a little pointless at this juncture to spin off the NW Corridor as it is the most profitable service Amtrak runs, making $40 bucks profit per passenger. This is in stark contrast to other lines that lose Amtrak hundreds of dollars per passenger.

If "private industry" wanted to make its mark, it can do so on other lines that aren't making money.

by freely on May 27, 2011 9:28 am • linkreport

@Alex, The government may have invented the Internet but it didn't commercialize it. That's the most successful combination. Government has the resources (our limitless tax dollars) to develop ideas ... even risky ones (it's not like the government is going to fail when it makes a bad decision ... it'll just tax us more), but it takes the free market to figure out how to make the idea profitable and self sustaining.

by Lance on May 27, 2011 9:30 am • linkreport

The internet is a great example of how we can give away government-built infrastructure to private companies so that they can then make bank using that infrastructure to sell services to the people who paid taxes to build the infrastructure in the first place.

Which means it's a perfect analog for this NEC privatization plan! Take the one piece of Amtrak's network that they actually make money on, give it to a private company for a pittance, then ask the private company, "pretty please, won't you spend some money to upgrade this infrastructure?" I'm SURE they will do so, just like the telecoms have, right?

by MLD on May 27, 2011 9:31 am • linkreport

Day passes for tourists are an important revenue source, and moving to the 5 day pass is also a wise move. At some point, I hope CABI releases the zip copes of day pass members.

Spinning out Acela as a private company could make a lot of sense. Devil is in the details.

Here is a compromise: sell Acela, shutdown all other intercity rail, but heavily regulate rail companies to provide expedited access and service to commuter trains.

by charlie on May 27, 2011 9:31 am • linkreport

I'm not one to believe that private industry is the solution to everything... but Japan's rail systems are privatized and they work pretty well.

by wd on May 27, 2011 9:32 am • linkreport

@Charlie

Focusing on the service side without addressing the infrastructure side is a fool's errand.

I'm skeptical of Mica's plan, but I also don't think Amtrak is a sacred cow.

by Alex B. on May 27, 2011 9:37 am • linkreport

@ Alex B: This is basically France's model - SNCF was split in two, and there are separate entities that build track and run trains.

Holland did the same. There is a semi-government entity "ProRail" that maintains the railroad infrastructure. They build stations, maintain and railroads and importantly, run traffic control. the Dutch railroad system is one of the densest and busiest in the world. They're paid for by the government and user fees.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ProRail

Dutch Railways, NS, has been completely privatized (although the government may still own a good chunk of the stock, not sure), and runs most of the passenger trains. They get some subsidies in exchange for performance targets (that are never met).

There are several smaller regional passenger train operators, often companies that run the local bus systems.

For cargo, there is a whole other bunch of operators.

I guess you can compare the way Prorail operates with the way the FAA operates in air traffic in the US.

This is way of splitting infrastructure from operation is a model that the Dutch have chosen for many former state run operations. Rail, telecom, power distribution,etc. All in all the government keeps, expands and maintains the infrastructure, while opening up the infrastructure for *paying* customers (railroad companies, telecom providers, energy companies). The idea is that this way the government can maintain the quality of the infrastructure, and keep things efficient. It works. With the usual government bureaucracy.

by Jasper on May 27, 2011 9:39 am • linkreport

Re: St. Elizabeth's

Good! No need for another federal fortress. Hopefully the land can be used for another project that is better-integrated with the community.

Re: Amtrak

I don't agree with selling off what is already a profitable line. However, I am willing to try anything to get HSR for the Northeast Corridor sooner rather than later. The demand is here now, I don't understand why it should take 30 years to build out... there have to be incremental steps that can be taken in the meantime.

Re: CaBi Day Member Zip Codes

Does the bike station kiosk ask users for their zip codes when purchasing with a credit card? I've never tried. If not, it may be very difficult to find out that info.

by Adam L on May 27, 2011 9:42 am • linkreport

The internet's a great example of how awesome privatization is. It's worked so well in the US that we now have some of the highest residential broadband speeds, lowest prices, and most robust competition in the world. Except, that's not how it is at all, and what we really have are monopoly providers using their market positions to crush competition and their lobbying arms to influence politicians to make any attempted municipality-based solutions illegal. It's also why we have increasingly smaller bandwidth caps for increasingly expensive service. Any Amtrak privatization would probably immediately result in 1) crappier service and 2) higher prices.

by JS on May 27, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

@Jasper

Right - because there is still a natural monopoly for tracks, the same way there is for power lines or other public utilities. That's not necessarily the case for service, ergo that split can make sense.

Still, it's not entirely clear that's what Mica is proposing here. Again, Amtrak is an organization that needs to make some changes, but I'm skeptical of Mica as a concern troll here.

by Alex B. on May 27, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

It's very possible that a private company could run and upgrade the NEC better than Amtrak, although there are many questions, like would the new private company get the Bear shops and other facilities/real estate, and what rolling stock would it start with, etc. But I'm pretty sure that this is just a way to eliminate the rest of Amtrak. Once Amtrak is gone, it would be very hard to restart any kind of interstate rail service, especially where republican governed states are concerned.

by kinverson on May 27, 2011 9:45 am • linkreport

@Jasper, there are such things as bipartisan gerrymanders (when both parties agree to eliminate competitive districts to protect incumbents), and even nonpartisan gerrymanders (Arizona's 1st and 2nd congressional districts are gerrymandered to separate Navajo and Hopi voters; the two tribes disagree on a number of land-use issues that are resolved at the federal level, and separating the Navajo and Hopi means they each get a different representative in Congress).

by cminus on May 27, 2011 9:49 am • linkreport

@AdamL; I'll admit to only buying one day pass, so could be wrong, but I thought it asked for a zip code as verification. If not -- you are correct, that is going to be very hard to track.

by charlie on May 27, 2011 9:51 am • linkreport

I'm completely with those who say that Amtrak's no sacred cow, and shouldn't be treated as such. I can't speak to NE corridor service (for a reason - it would be tremendously inconvenient for me to use without severe service upgrades. Besides, I don't go to New York THAT often...), but I'll never forget taking it south to go back to college once, during my senior year.

Once.

The trip was about two-and-a-half hours by car. It took upwards of four hours by train because of the time we spent waiting outside Richmond, among other considerations. That whole time there were two of us in the train car.

I don't know what model should be used, but there HAS to be a better one than the current one, because the current model is a joke.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on May 27, 2011 9:55 am • linkreport

@kinverson -- but is that such a bad thing? The numbers outside of NEC, the Midwest & CA are pretty pathetic -- and for good reason. If Amtrak didn't run from Chicago to LA would anyone miss it?

I am skeptical of the privatization as well but I'm not completely averse to the idea. The benefit of privatization is introducing competition to the marketplace. Look at what has happened in the intercity bus market in the past decade in the northeast -- competition has vastly improved the product. I don't know how you can have competition on a rail line though.

by CBGB on May 27, 2011 10:05 am • linkreport

@ Ser Amantio di Nicolao,
You aren't talking about from NY to Richmond, right? There's no way you can go that distance in 2.5 hours by car. Pardon if I interpreted your comment incorrectly.

by engrish_major on May 27, 2011 10:07 am • linkreport

@Ser Amantio di Nicolao, I have had lots of great non-NEC trips on Amtrak. There, now we have two anecdotes!

by Miriam on May 27, 2011 10:08 am • linkreport

I've taken Amtrak from San Diego to LA, from north of Seattle to Vancouver, and from Savannah to Charleston. All of them were great and I was very happy not to have to rent a one-way car for the trip.

Each time, we were staying in a transit-rich walkable area and/or were staying with friends, and definitely didn't need cars at each end, so it was very valuable to be able to get between the cities that way.

The really long distance trips over the mountains are less useful than connecting these more closely-spaced pairs, but there are also many intermediate cities, and many people keep forgetting that many of the trips on those routes just go between some of the intermediate city pairs.

by David Alpert on May 27, 2011 10:11 am • linkreport

@engrish_major: No, no - I'm a local boy, through and through (well, almost...I don't count those five years I spent elsewhere between birth and moving to Fairfax County :-) ) The trip was between Alexandria and Williamsburg. And Williamsburg isn't really a BAD location to take the train to, if you have no need of a car when you get there (as I did not). The station's not far from campus - with suitcase it took me maybe fifteen minutes to get back. And there's a lovely little local bus service, had I wanted to use it.

@Miriam: I've had other bad Amtrak experiences as well, and I know others who can say the same thing. I know it's a bit of a crapshoot. Nevertheless, I'm convinced it can be far, far better than it is. And it needs to be, too.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on May 27, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

If Amtrak didn't run from Chicago to LA would anyone miss it?

Well, yeah. I've never ridden the California Zephyr to LA, but I have ridden the Empire Builder, and when I was young, the Pioneer. And while there were people riding the whole way like me, there were plenty of people riding only a small portion of the route. The only time I rode the Pioneer, it was about a month before it was cancelled, and there were people very worried about their small town losing their service. There are plenty of small and medium sized towns that would lose quite a bit if long distance rail service ended.

Now, I'm not saying that providing small towns in Montana or North Dakota with service justifies Amtrak, but what is the difference with aviation? Both state and federal funds have paid for hundreds of millions of dollars for runways, ATC, and passenger terminals in marginal locations - some of which have never even had scheduled service!

The other big thing that concerns me is energy prices. SO MANY analyses and opinions about transportation assume that the cost of gas, aviation fuel, diesel, and even electricity will remain basically stable, and to me that's just crazy. So many things could cause an oil crash, and when it happens - and it will happen - we will really regret trashing energy efficient passenger rail.

by kinverson on May 27, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

@ David Alpert,

The question isn't whether it is occasionally valuable on an individual basis, but whether it serves a significant purpose (economically, or transit etc).

While all of your Amtrak trips were fun I am sure, the question is should the US taxpayer be enormously subsidizing peoples recreation. Here are the stats on your trips

1. SD-LA - Loses $29 bucks per passenger (2.8 million passengers per year

2. Seattle -Vancouver - Loses $32 per passenger (760K passengers per year)

3. Savannah - Charleston - Loses $85 per passenger (197K passengers per year)

So while it was convenient for you not to have to rent a car, the taxpayer paid a massive subsidy ($300 bucks total for you and your wife to take 3 train rides) for that personal convenience.

by freely on May 27, 2011 10:29 am • linkreport

@ Alex B:Right - because there is still a natural monopoly for tracks, the same way there is for power lines or other public utilities.

I'm not sure the word monopoly is relevant here. Are roads a monopoly? The government owns and maintains all this infrastructure with the expressed intent of giving everyone equal access and preventing private monopolies. As counter-intuitive it may be, it is more efficient and therefore cheaper. For instance, the government forces mobile telecom providers to share towers. Once one is built, every operator gets access, as well as others that might need a tower for something.

by Jasper on May 27, 2011 10:33 am • linkreport

@ kinverson; large chunks of that is paid for with airline fees.

Your point about future price assumptions is valid; but aren't most of the long distance Amtrak services run on diesel? Only the NEC is electrified.

That being said, I am also curious to know the percentage of American freight traffic that is coal. I suspect it is 65-75 percent figure by volume.

by charlie on May 27, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

Just look at what happened when the government got out of only regulating the phone industry. Had they not done that, it's likely we'd still be using dial phone literally attached to the wall. There'd be no cell phones, no broadband, no Internet ... you name it. And that's an example where the government was just heavily regulating it.

Lance, you may want to pick a better analogy. The Internet itself was a government innovation, and the pre-deregulation phone company gave us the transistor, the laser, Unix, and C/C++.

by Tom on May 27, 2011 10:41 am • linkreport

@ freely: And how much of I-5 and US-17 gets recouped from user fees?

by Jasper on May 27, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

@freely

$85 bucks... wow. Not that line I would be fore dropping, I know people may need it but thats a lot of money. All the lines under $30 seem fair since since roads are in theory subsidized at least that much.

by Matt R on May 27, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

@ Lance, Tom: Lance, you may want to pick a better analogy.

Exactly. America is falling way behind Europe, Japan, South Korea and even India in mobile communications. In all aspects: price, functionality and broadband speed. Telecom is one of the best examples where the "great American free market" has failed consumers miserably.

by Jasper on May 27, 2011 10:45 am • linkreport

@ Jasper; once India gets 3G I might agree.

The entire telecom story is interesting, but the simplify it to government regulation is highly misleading. Remember: AT&T broke itself up. It was a consent decree, not a win.

by charlie on May 27, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

Dear everyone using anecdotal evidence about Amtrak:
We shouldn't use anecdotal evidence to prove points. And I'm sure someone will bring some actual figures to bear sometime soon.

However, I still want to weigh in on the issue.

Over the last six years, I've traveled on Amtrak on 14 different routes, in 30 states, and almost 13,000 miles. During that time, I have never once been more than 2 hours late.

I cannot say the same for airplanes. I've been stuck for hours in airports. I've sat on the tarmac. I've missed connections. I've been delayed, mistreated, and harassed. Now, that's not to say that private industry is incapable of getting people places on time. I've had plenty of flawless flights.

But if I add up my anecdotes, Amtrak comes off as the more reliable mode of transport. Though it is not always the most convenient one. It depends on the circumstance.

I don't know what Mr. Mica's proposal is exactly. But I am skeptical of it.

by Matt Johnson on May 27, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

Jasper,

Hyperbole doesn't help your case. Those roads were built /maintained with the same funds breakdown (gas tax/local/federal) that every other interstate is.

Here is the rub...roads and Amtrak are providing two purely different services, so vent your car hate all you like, it doesn't help you in this case.

Amtrak is providing purely a personal transportation service, and they are doing so at enormous cost to the taxpayer. They aren't hauling freight. Both US-17 and I5 are used to transport hundreds of millions / billions of dollars a day of local/regional/national freight and are directly contributing to the daily commerce of the nation.

To answer your next question:

US-17 (along that route) sees 109K vehicles per day.
I-5 (along that route) sees 319 K vehicles per day.

You could close those Amtrak lines tomorrow and the result would be a handful of angry vacationers.

Closing US-17 and I-5 tomorrow would result in ~billions of dollars a day in lost national commerce.

@ Matt,

Those lines aren't even the worst. The California Zepher Line (Chicago to California) loses $162 per rider. The Sunset Limited Line (TX to Cali) loses $462 dollars per rider. I am a big fan of Amtrak service to NYC and use it frequently but that doesn't mean I am blind to the sheer ridiuclousness of keeping some of the other lines running. They aren't being used and cost a fortune to the taxpayer. Shut them down.

by freely on May 27, 2011 11:03 am • linkreport

Hate to pile on Lance... but I will anyway. It is precisely because of heavy government regulation that we had modems at all: Without the FCC's Carterfone decision, the Bell System would have denied users the ability to connect the devices of their choice to the phone network.

by Rob Pegoraro on May 27, 2011 11:16 am • linkreport

Anytime the government steps out of a business which isn't inherently governmental, that business, now infused with a profit motive, skyrockets in terms of service and innovations.

Not true. When governments privatized electricity utilities it led to massive price increases and brownouts and was a facilitating factor in Enron's fraud. Like most things in politics, it's not about ideology, but (boringly) about execution.

I don't agree with selling off what is already a profitable line.

Once again, this is a decision that's more complex than picking a blanket ideology and sticking to it regardless of circumstances. The wisdom of selling it depends on a) how much you get for it, and b) what regulations are in place to ensure the buyer doesn't use monopoly power to screw customers.

then ask the private company, "pretty please, won't you spend some money to upgrade this infrastructure?" I'm SURE they will do so, just like the telecoms have, right?

Actually, internet providers built capacity and upgraded infrastructure far faster than the pace of demand growth. Hence, we had the bubble in internet infrastructure companies like Ciena, Lucent, Cisco, etc.

America is falling way behind Europe, Japan, South Korea and even India in mobile communications.

This worry is very 5 years ago before the iPhone, Android and other US innovations. Google "us europe mobile innovation" and you'll see plenty of articles arguing that the US has caught up and poised to take the lead.

by Falls Church on May 27, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

@charlie
That being said, I am also curious to know the percentage of American freight traffic that is coal. I suspect it is 65-75 percent figure by volume.

Coal is about 50% of rail freight (by ton-miles and weight) and about 25% of all freight.

by MLD on May 27, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

SNCF is already a quasi-governmental entity, almost identical to Amtrak in its structure, and as far as I know, manages both tracks and passenger services.

The UK splits its rail infrastructure in two -- Network Rail, which maintains/builds intercity tracks, while passenger services are awarded as franchises to private operators.

It should be noted that these franchises (in the UK and elsewhere) are frequently subsidized, and are usually awarded with very specific guidelines from the government, dictating how often services are to run, to what destinations, and usually include reliability mandates as well.

I wouldn't be hugely opposed to nationalizing our tracks, and privatizing (or simply separating) the passenger services. However, we more or less already did this with Conrail in the 1970s, and then sold it off to private companies for a pittance, once it started being successful in the 1990s (funny how that works, huh?).

Coincidentally, these two private companies are now the source of ~75% of Amtrak's delays on the east coast.

by andrew on May 27, 2011 11:35 am • linkreport

Privatizing one form of transit without privatizing the others is a back-door way to eliminate something you don't like. If you stop subsidizing rail, then you have to stop subsidizing highways and airports. Any proposal that continues subsidy for one option but eliminates it for another is not a free market solution; it is just government dictating your options.

by FN on May 27, 2011 11:40 am • linkreport

Marion Barry is threatening a lawsuit because the council won't fold white parts of DC into Ward 8, claiming it is racist? Why would any sane person force a whole bunch of white residents into the district of man who played the white v black card all too frequently?

As for lawsuits: doesnt Barry have a few too many of his own to worry about?

by SJE on May 27, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

"Without the FCC's Carterfone decision, the Bell System would have denied users the ability to connect the devices of their choice to the phone network."

Classic case of falling for the power of narrative.

by charlie on May 27, 2011 12:04 pm • linkreport

@DA
I'm sure it was lovely to sit on a train rather than having to drive. How much was it worth for you to do that? How do you build a business model around such a leisurely mode of travel? Most people don't have the luxury of such long trips. Since reaching the real world, I've had exactly 3 vacations longer than a week in 15 years (Carribean by air, CA by car, Europe by rail). If I'm going to bother going somewhere, I'd rather be there than sitting on a train, even if it means an uncomfortable flying experience.

@Matt Johnson
IMHO you've just been lucky. I fly more than I take the train, but I've certainly gotten stuck with multiple hour delays on the east coast multiple times. I've sat near Philly for hours in the summer without air conditioning because the heat was messing with the rails. I've sat in Charlottesville for hours waiting for a train to show up. I've been squeezed onto a regular NE line because the Acela broke down. I've also had horrible flying experiences and I've also had great Amtrak experiences (for example a trip to NYC in February where a wintry mix paralyzed the region's entire road network but the train was exactly on time). It is really a crapshoot.

One problem I have with Amtrak (and also MetroBus at a different scale) is that too many of the lines are too darned long. No one is going to ride the line from end to end and there are far too many things that can go wrong on such a long line. Boston to DC is about the longest length a line should be. No rail line should be more than 18 hours long. If the lines are broken up into manageable pieces, you can improve performance and provide departure times that are sensible. If people really want to make long haul trips, they can transfer. What difference does it make? They obviously aren't concerned about time if they are taking the train 1000+ miles.

by movement on May 27, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport

http://www.bts.gov/publications/transportation_statistics_annual_report/2009/html/chapter_02/table_02_05_02.html

in 2009, 81% of short distance trains were on time.
76% of long distance.

by charlie on May 27, 2011 12:29 pm • linkreport

Also, just to put the funding in perspective:

Last year, we spent $40B on highways. In the entire history of Amtrak, the federal government has spent less than $38B on Amtrak. That's according to Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).

That's right. Last year, we spent more on highways than we've spent on Amtrak over its entire (40 year) history.

And people wonder why the railroad has problems. The Corridor might be in a state of bad repair, but the trains are running full.

If Mr. Mica is concerned that Amtrak is going to take too long to upgrade the Corridor with their current resources, the solution might be to give them the resources they need to improve the Corridor.

by Matt Johnson on May 27, 2011 12:39 pm • linkreport

@ charlie: once India gets 3G I might agree.

India has near national coverage. America does not. Neither does America have national 3G coverage. India has normal coverage in places where there is no running water or power. And they have that at prices that are a fraction of what you pay in the US.

@ freely: so vent your car hate all you like, it doesn't help you in this case.

What car hate? You point out that certain rail service does not make money, I point out that neither do roads. That's not car hate, it's reality.

Both US-17 and I5 are used to transport hundreds of millions / billions of dollars a day of local/regional/national freight and are directly contributing to the daily commerce of the nation.

Yes, and those transportation companies get those roads for free, whereas freight rail has to build its own railroads. Seems unfair, not? To put it differently, if car and rail cargo were treated equally, there would be privately funded Fedex and UPS roads. I don't think that is realistic. I wonder why people do consider the current rail situation realistic.

@ FN:Privatizing one form of transit without privatizing the others is a back-door way to eliminate something you don't like. If you stop subsidizing rail, then you have to stop subsidizing highways and airports. Any proposal that continues subsidy for one option but eliminates it for another is not a free market solution; it is just government dictating your options.

+1

by Jasper on May 27, 2011 12:47 pm • linkreport

Err, Matt, if anything you're proving the opposite.

Acela had 400M in revenue. If the $40 profit per passenger is correct, that is about 120M in profit. Let's say $100M.

At a 5% interest rate, that 100M could service a 2,000,000,000 bond offering. Or maybe, if you get one of 100 year loans like Goldman did to take over Chicago parking, you might squeeze a bit more.

Or, have the Feds get the money then loan that directly to a privatized Acela.

Or sell the entire system to the French, for about 15 billion.

Funny, GGW seems to love tolls, privatized highways, Transurban and parking privatization. But when it comes to their precious little trains....

by charlie on May 27, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport

@ Jasper; Having mobile phone service - and no electricity or water -- might be more a failure of, oh, I don't know, the water authority or electricity authority. And then have no 3G. Data plans are NOT cheap.

And in any case, the mobile phone industry there is almost 100% private.

by charlie on May 27, 2011 12:51 pm • linkreport

All Mica is trying to do is destroy Amtrak with this. C'mon guys, wake up and smell the coffee. If Amtrak is stripped of its most valuable asset it will lose both the money generated, political support and leverage over states, the feds and freight railroads in many cases. Amtrak runs as much service as possible in the Northeast given current infrastructure and actually do a pretty good job. now I have not always loved Amtrak but give some credit. This is crazy, no private company has any means to build the necessary upgrades including tunnels through Baltimore, across the Hudson as well as new trackage, sidings, and bridges in Connecticut and Portal in New Jersey (also almost all in Maryland!) These capital projects are best left to Amtrak and the feds and the service on these tracks should be run by Amtrak or other commuter railroads that benefit substantially from increased track capacity. Lets leave public infrastructure in the hands of the public and their interest, not corporate greed (that may not even want to run services or maintain track)

by astonvillan82 on May 27, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson,
I really wish people would stop making comparisons that have zero applicability. What you've done is compare apples to staple guns, which is compeltely worthless.

As I stated above, roads and Amtrak are two different animals. One transports both passengers and freight. One does not. For that reason alone, comparing Amtrak to roads is pointless.

Last year Amtrak had 30 million passenger trips in comparison to the what...hundreds of billions of passenger trips on US highways.

Last year Amtrak carried zero dollars in freight/goods. US roads carried trillions of dollars worth of freight/goods.

A comparison between the two and which provides more value..."bang for the buck" is ludicrously one sided.

by freely on May 27, 2011 1:21 pm • linkreport

Freely: roads and rail both transport people and freight. What are you talking about?

by SJE on May 27, 2011 1:37 pm • linkreport

"GGW seems to love tolls, privatized highways, Transurban and parking privatization. But when it comes to their precious little trains...."

Perhaps it's because GGW isn't actually mode-agnostic, and for good reason. Inducing demand for trains/bikes/walking and cutting demand for driving benefits society by cutting externalized costs, and are macro policy decisions that have to be made by government (i.e., the market won't do that, especially not given the current set of incentives that government has set up).

Mechanism of the Mica plan: as best as I can tell, he would put control of the ex-Pennsy NEC tracks into USDOT hands -- kind of our version of Network Rail -- and put out a tender for whoever thinks they can run a high-speed service in the corridor. Presumably, operators like Veolia or DB/Arriva would partner with design-build firms to submit joint bids. I'm still not exactly sure how that helps move the 220 MPH vision forward, though, since that requires lots of new track.

by Payton on May 27, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

I agree that GGW's love of trains seems a little faith based, reflecting the preferances and biases of the GGW demographic (which I share).

by SJE on May 27, 2011 2:01 pm • linkreport

@SJE,

Keep up man, the article and all subsequent posts have been about Amtrak, which does not carry freight.

by freely on May 27, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

@FN,

The government doesn't run any airlines or buses, or make cars. It only subsidizes the infrastructure for air and road travel. Rail service could easily be privatized without ending subsidies for rail infrastructure.

@Matt Johnson,

Passenger rail has problems because Amtrak is forced to lose money providing long-distance service. If either Amtrak or a private company only had to run the Acela and maybe Northeast Regional service, it could use the profit to invest in infrastructure. Any federal funds saved could be allocated to other parts of the budget or used to subsidize more efficient commuter rail or air travel instead. Private operators could provide occasional long-distance service for the niche market that wants it.

There's a sort of fixed time cost of flying (extra travel time to the airport relative to a train station, and security) that makes rail very competitive across distances of around five hundred miles or less. But across longer distances, planes simply travel much faster with far less infrastructure cost. If we have to subsidize long-distance travel around the South and Midwest, let's at least subsidize forms that make sense.

by jakeod on May 28, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport

movement, stop fixating on the terminus. Youre talking about trains remember? It's like you dont understand how they work.

Lets say Amtrak serves the following stops:

A B C D E F G H I J

Instead of saying "nobody rides from A-J, what a waste! It takes so long!" (Aka, Chicago-LA example) Realize that nobody has to, and the train can still be full....many times over. The same seat is sold multiple times.

I can ride from D to F, a 6 hour trip, and get nowhere enar the terminus.

Sort of like the Regional going from Springfield, MA to Lynchburg, VA. I doubt a single person did that trip. Nobody has to. Its a train, you get on and off. I mean, have you ever ridden the NE Regional? Anyone who has realizes the huge turnover at the major stations.

Then you say "just split up the route into multiple trains, nobody that matters will be affected".

Lets try that again
We split the route
A B C D E .. |..E F G H I J

Great way to lose passengers.

Now someone going from D to F will not want to take the train, because of a transfer. Imagine adding 1 hour transfer time to what used to be a 1 hour trip. Insane.

Someone going from C to F will also be greatly inconvenienced.
As will someone going from D to I
and B to G
and A to F

etc etc

Split it up into three routes, and you're destroying the line.

Why do so many people not understand this?

by JJJJJ on May 29, 2011 4:32 pm • linkreport

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