Commuter rail ‘summer of hell’ will seem like a breeze without long-term funding
© Greg Nash

The “summer of hell,” the New York governor’s colorful phrase for what ails New York City’s commuter rail in and out of Penn Station, could end up a cake walk in comparison to what comes later if Congress delays much further on making big-ticket infrastructure investment commitments.

Amtrak Co-CEO Wick Moorman should be commended for drawing necessary attention to a passenger rail system needing much, much more than a temporary fix or PR facelift. Moorman has injected a “this is how a business ought to think and run” attitude at Amtrak and has made a top priority of fixing the infrastructure problems in and around Penn Station, the nation’s busiest passenger rail hub.

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The Penn Station revitalization is no small feat. Amtrak will remove the equivalent of six football fields’ worth of track and install new track and switches all before Labor Day. The fixes can’t come soon enough for the hundreds of thousands of commuters who pass through Penn Station each weekday.

 

But the truth is that Amtrak has been left to correct and clean up a festering problem that was a long time coming. The reality, said Moorman in a recent op-ed, “is that decades of insufficient funding by federal and state governments and too few resources dedicated to critical infrastructure in this country make this summer’s work at Penn Station a necessary step forward in not just maintaining — but saving — the transportation infrastructure of the region.”

While Amtrak covers most of its operating costs, it requires a secure capital funding source to address its massive infrastructure needs, one that can be counted on without fail, as opposed to the annual budgeting of congressional appropriations, with its fits and starts and threats of funding evaporation. Compare this to Amtrak’s freight brethren who fund all their infrastructure investments with private capital.  

Sad to say, that dynamic at Penn Station — in which infrastructure languishes while awaiting essential upgrades — is playing out nationally. It’s why the nation’s infrastructure received a devastating “D +” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Where once lawmakers were confident about the prospects for Congress passing an extensive infrastructure bill this year, which President Trump pegged at $1 trillion in investments across the nation’s roads, commuter rails, waterways and highways, trepidation is now creeping in as other policy priorities continue to dominate the spotlight. 

That concern is potent enough that it is filtering through to infrastructure-related industries. For example, Deutsche Bank recently downgraded the stock of one construction corporation, saying in a report that "without an infrastructure stimulus, we see little prospects for continued [North America non-residential] construction growth.” The report said it was unclear “if/when infrastructure stimulus may materialize."

Moorman knows what he is talking about when he talks about the need to adequately plan for and fund infrastructure year over year. As a freight railroad executive, for years he was responsible for budgeting quite literally billions of dollars in infrastructure investments.

“Our country needs to step up on all of its infrastructure, on our highway system and its bridges, on some of the waterway system and the ports,” he said recently. 

“Everywhere you look, there are huge needs. And if we don't address that, at Amtrak and everywhere else, my great concern is that in 20 years' time, what has been the great competitive advantage that's driven our country forward, really since the Second World War, becomes the great competitive disadvantage that holds us back.”

My hope is that lawmakers heed this businessman’s warning and do what is right so America’s passenger rail system is poised to safely and efficiently embrace 21st century needs. 

Edward R. Hamberger is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. He has more than forty years of combined experience in private legal practice and the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government.


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