Editorial: Rail investment will pay off
It's hard to believe that it was just three years ago that President Bush tried to kill all federal funding for Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail service.
In Illinois, the number of riders increased by 181,000 so far this year as people flock to the trains because of high gas prices. Trains from St. Louis to Chicago had nearly 56 percent more passengers in Amtrak’s fiscal year 2007 compared with 2006. Ridership on four of the five St. Louis-Chicago trains grew another 19 percent in FY2008’s first eight months.
That’s why we commend Sen. Dick Durbin’s legislation encouraging the rehabilitation of Amtrak’s fleet. It’s most important feature is the creation of a trust fund to replace or upgrade the nation’s 1,500 cars by transferring one-quarter cent of the nation’s motor-fuel tax revenues for three years, generating $400 million.
That provision is a small but important shift in federal transportation policy. For too long, rail’s capital costs have been ignored in favor of roads.
Congress can do more. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has an ambitious plan to connect the region by rail. One of the most important planks of the plan for local residents is the ability to run trains at 110 mph between St. Louis and Chicago — trains that stop in Springfield. This is a vital next step in the development of high-speed rail, but it still pales compared to the 200 mph-plus trains in Europe and Asia.
Gas prices may fall or more fuel-efficient cars could come along, but if people pick up the train habit, they will not go back as long as affordable, frequent and reliable train service faster than their car is available.
Trains also make sense in light of increasingly expensive and frustrating air travel. They also pollute less than planes and cars.
With $75 million in improvements to tracks, the signal system (air traffic control for trains) and platforms, passengers could get from Springfield to Chicago in 2 1/2 hours. Even just spending $15 million to allow in-cab signals and automated stop features would cut the current 31/2-hour trip to 3 hours.
“It’s so frustrating how close we are to having a less than 3-hour trip between Springfield and Chicago,” Richard Harnish, executive director of the association, told us Thursday. “It’s still a rounding error when it comes to the state budget.”
Illinois has been gradually funding improvements to make high-speed rail a reality. If the General Assembly takes up a capital bill, local lawmakers should demand funding for in-cab signals.
But the federal government needs to step up too. Unlike the highways program, there is no program where the state and federal governments share the costs of improvements. It’s time for one.
Congress’ proposed annual Amtrak funding bill gives $100 million to states for inter-city improvements. It’s not enough when you consider that Illinois alone needs $75 million to get high-speed rail between St. Louis and Chicago.
The annual argument about Amtrak’s “profitability” also needs to end. Does Interstate 55 between Springfield and Chicago turn a profit? What about South Sixth Street? Of course not, but we pay for improvements because they meet our economic and transportation needs. So does Amtrak.
Durbin’s plan, coupled with a regular federal matching program for capital improvements to rail, would be an investment in the nation’s transportation future. Rather than wait for the crisis, which has been the federal government’s policy on energy, it is time to do something that pays long-term dividends.