Heading Down the Wrong Track on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor

(Photo: AP/Mike Groll)

A man works on a rail bridge spanning the Hudson River as an Amtrak passenger rail passes by in December 2015 in Albany, New York.

Last fall, Amtrak implemented a new “cost-sharing policy” that significantly bumps up payments that some state transit agencies in the Northeast make to the national railroad network. The new policy aims to funnel additional funds into North America’s busiest regional passenger rail network—Amtrak’s Boston-to-Washington corridor—which is sorely in need of fresh infusions of cash to make up for decades of infrastructure disinvestment.

But the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), the agency that runs the metro Boston public transportation system, cried foul when Amtrak presented it with a nearly $30 million bill for its yearly share. In a January letter to outgoing Amtrak president Joseph Boardman, Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack called Amtrak’s demands “unreasonable” and pointed to the long-term contract between the two systems, in place for more than a decade, under which they extend services and the use of facilities to each other free of charge. 

Amtrak has not backed down, and efforts to broker a resolution have failed, leading MBTA officials to a “see-you-in-federal court” gambit that is being closely watched by the mass transit sector.

Amtrak and state transit agencies like the MBTA that operate commuter rail networks should be natural allies. Instead, the two sides are now pitted against each other as a result of Congress’s refusal to sufficiently increase funding levels for the country’s passenger rail network. Federal and state transportation officials cannot satisfy the riding public’s appetite for 21st-century rail lines (like the ones in Europe and Asia that American tourists swoon over) with 20th-century trains, tracks, tunnels, and bridges, barely sustained by funding levels so inadequate they would raise the eyebrows of the 19th-century titans of industry who originally established the country’s rail networks. 

The lawsuit comes at what should be a triumphant moment for Amtrak and its reliably profitable Boston-to-Washington lines. In the Northeast Corridor (NEC), Amtrak is the short-trip mode of choice. Between New York and Boston, more people travel by rail than by air; between New York and Washington, more than three times as many people use Amtrak than airplanes.

To the surprise of transit advocates, Amtrak made out better than it has in recent years in the five-year FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act that Congress finally passed last year after dozens of short-term funding extensions. The national railroad reeled in more than $8 billion over the period, for an average annual increase of $90 million. The NEC received a nearly $3 billion package, while the rest of the national system landed $5.5 billion.

Such sums, however, are still just a drop in the bucket when measured against Amtrak’s most basic needs. The NEC alone has a $52 billion backlog in delayed maintenance.

For Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor, 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, and one-time member of Amtrak’s board of directors, the lack of funding is a travesty, particularly since the NEC service is such a success and because Amtrak covers most of its operating costs through its revenues.

“Even for some of the conservatives in Congress, this would be pretty dramatic evidence that the place is working hard to manage itself and to meet its obligations,” says Dukakis, a passionate rail fan who can be spotted in the Boston area using both the MBTA and Amtrak. “Yet there is a strong block of conservatives who don’t want to spend any money on [passenger rail],” he adds. “How they reconcile this with billions in subsidies for both highways and airports, I don’t know.”

Dukakis recognizes that the FAST appropriations fall far short of the multiple billions needed to catapult Amtrak into the rail big leagues with France, Japan, or China. “Every advanced industrialized nation in the world except us is investing heavily in high-speed rail and a national high-speed rail passenger system,” Dukakis told The American Prospect.

In an effort to scrounge up more money for infrastructure maintenance, the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (the region’s rail policymaking body which includes representatives from Amtrak, the NEC states, and the U.S. Department of Transportation) came up with a roster of assessments that each state transit agency in the corridor must pay to Amtrak.

Which is likely why Amtrak wants to ditch its back-scratching arrangement with the MBTA. According to the MBTA lawsuit, Amtrak would reap tens of millions in savings under this new policy. Other states in the NEC like New Jersey would not.

The Bay State’s deal with Amtrak is unique. New Jersey Transit and other state transit agencies pay Amtrak for access to the tracks that the national railroad owns. However, the MBTA owns the nearly 40 miles of track between Boston and the Rhode Island state line. Under the terms of the 2003 contract that is the focus of the current lawsuit, Amtrak uses the MBTA’s tracks and stations, in return for which it dispatches both MBTA commuter rail trains and its own intercity trains. Amtrak also pays for the maintenance of the MBTA’s rail line. Under the terms of this grand barter arrangement, neither agency pays the other for these services.

What the lawsuit does not say is that MBTA has a problem with the new policy for an even simpler reason: The agency does not have $30 million to spare. Trapped in a fiscal nightmare, the MBTA carries nearly $9 billion in debt, has yet to plug holes in its 2017 budget, and continues to try to figure out how to save a metro Boston light-rail extension project that is $1 billion over budget.

So while Congress continues to sidestep the dollars-and-cents issues that led to the Amtrak-MBTA dispute, the NEC states will have to deal with the fallout themselves. But no one is fooled: In a December 2015 report outlining the new assessments, the NEC commission summed up Amtrak’s political travails this way: “The federal government has failed to provide Amtrak with consistent policy or financial commitments to support the mission it has prescribed for the company or to support intercity passenger rail in general.”

Amtrak did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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