Congress needs to fund projects for the expansion of American railways

The expansion of passenger rail is critical to the economic growth of the United States. As the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, my goal is to ensure intercity passenger and high-speed rail lines connect nationwide to enhance and improve our current systems of transportation, including commuter rail and airport-rail linkages.

Passenger rail reduces congestion and improves our energy independence. One full passenger train can take 250 to 350 cars off the road. Passenger rail also consumes less energy than both automobiles and commercial airlines.

A robust passenger rail system in America will go a long way toward solving some of our nation’s economic, energy, environmental and transportation challenges, as well as create thousands of good-paying jobs.

These benefits, however, do not come without a price tag, and experience in other countries makes clear that a successful passenger rail system will require consistent, dedicated funding.

In addition to its economic costs, traffic also impacts our health and wellness. According to Gallup, “American workers with lengthy commutes are more likely to report a range of adverse physical and emotional conditions.”

Americans with longer commutes say they’re more stressed out, have more back pain and are more likely to have been diagnosed with high cholesterol or to be obese. A 2012 study found “that the farther people commute by vehicle, the higher their blood pressure and body mass index is likely to be.”

Families are losing what precious little time they have together because of time spent in traffic on the way to and from work, picking up the kids at day care or running the endless errands that seem a part of life in today’s society.

As congestion increases and gas prices continue to rise, more and more people are turning to passenger rail as a preferred transportation option. Amtrak’s ridership has been growing at record rates across the system for nearly a decade. Amtrak carried a record total of 30.2 million passengers in 2013 — the eighth annual ridership record in the last nine years.

Amtrak’s share of the highly competitive Northeast Corridor market has likewise continued to grow. When Acela entered service in 2000, the airlines carried more than three times as many people between New York and Washington as trains did. Today that situation is reversed, and Amtrak now carries more than three times as many riders between New York and Washington as the entire airline industry. Amtrak has also begun procurement of new cars and locomotives that are being built by American workers in New York, California, Georgia and Ohio.

It has become clear that Americans need transportation alternatives. Congestion is crippling our major cities; even the infrastructure in our small towns is aging at an alarming rate. According to the Texas A&M Traffic Institute, in 2011, traffic congestion cost urban Americans 5.5 billion hours — and an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel — for a “congestion cost” of $121 billion. That’s up from $24 billion in 1982 and $94 billion in 2000, in constant 2011 dollars.

“The data show that congestion solutions are not being pursued aggressively enough,” the institute said in its report. There’s also evidence suggesting that congestion above a certain threshold slows job growth.

We cannot just focus on building more roads. We have to find broader solutions to address our transportation problems. That is why we must maintain and develop a national intercity passenger and high-speed rail network, such as Amtrak, in the United States.

It is no secret that the United States lags woefully behind the rest of the world, when it comes to developing high-speed rail. According to a study by Worldwatch Institute, interest in high-speed rail has surged around the world, with the number of countries running these trains expected to nearly double over the next few years. By 2014, high-speed trains will be operating in nearly 24 countries, including China, France, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States, up from only 14 countries today.

The increase in high-speed rail is due largely to its reliability and ability to cover vast geographic distances in a short time, to investments aimed at connecting once-isolated regions and to the diminishing appeal of air travel, which is becoming more cumbersome because of security concerns.

“In just three years, between January 2008 and January 2011, the operational fleet grew from 1,737 high-speed train sets worldwide to 2,517. Two-thirds of this fleet is found in just five countries: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain. By 2014, the global fleet is expected to total more than 3,700 units,” the Worldwatch study said.

I have traveled throughout the country with the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and wherever we’ve gone, there was very strong support for both Amtrak service and high-speed rail. The only complaints I’ve heard were that there wasn’t enough money for rail.

As we reauthorize Amtrak and begin to consider the next surface transportation bill, it is critical that this Congress address the need for additional rail capacity. Congress needs to find a dedicated revenue source so that states, operators and manufacturers are not afraid to make investments in infrastructure and manpower.

Brown has represented Florida’s 5th Congressional District since 1993. She serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is ranking member on its subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. She also serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.