- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

As our nation's passenger rail service continues its collapse into financial and operational crisis it is clearer than ever that dysfunctionality is an integral part of Amtrak's culture.

To understand Amtrak's institutional dysfunctionality, one need look no further than recent events, such as the withdrawal from service of the Acela, several major accidents and loss of life and the mortgaging of one of its premier properties, New York City's Penn Station, to fund operations.

As a member of both the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) and its predecessor, the House Blue Ribbon Committee on Passenger Rail, I've studied Amtrak for the past five years. Amtrak can't be reformed, and no amount of additional funding will solve this cultural problem. We need to face up to this inescapable fact and start with a clean sheet of paper.

Yes, we need passenger rail in America's 21st century transportation system. But the focus must be on regional high-density corridors of 100 to 500 miles where passenger rail can play a significant role in relieving congestion and providing the American people with a viable, functional transportation alternative. The relative effectiveness of the Northeast corridor demonstrates this fact. Corridors in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest and West Coast also need to be developed.

The Bush administration made an important first step toward this goal by recently announcing a realistic and achievable passenger rail policy. The most important element of this policy is to split Amtrak's infrastructure and operations into two separate and independent entities.

There has never been a major successful transportation operation in America where government funded the infrastructure, including its development and maintenance, and its operations. Would the American people accept the expenditure of billions of dollars to develop airports to serve just one state-subsidized airline? Would our people allow government to construct and maintain a 43,000-mile interstate highway system for the benefit of one government-owned trucking or bus company?

Of course not. It's not the American way.

Yet our nation's passenger rail pundits tell us over and over again, even after the expenditure of $25 billion in taxpayer's funds, that all Amtrak needs is more taxpayer dollars to fund its infrastructure and operations. There certainly is a creditability problem with these proposals, and frankly the American people are not buying it.

A passenger rail trust, funded by a dedicated user tax similar to those successfulsystems which fund our interstate highways, airports, inland waterways and ports should be established to fund passenger rail infrastructure development and maintenance. This model has proven over time to be successful and should be adapted to the nation's passenger rail needs.

Operationally, we should allow the private sector to compete on these high-density corridors as we've done with our highways, airports and other transportation infrastructure. Opening passenger rail to market forces would attract private capital to the system and result in better service, lower fares and more routes giving travelers additional transportation options while reducing congestion.

We should also allow the private sector to compete for the long-distance, lower ridership routes that Congress deems important to maintain in order to preserve a national passenger rail system. This would drastically lower the subsidies that support these routes.

Finally, we need to include the states and regional consortiums into the system to drive infrastructure decision making closer to the people and their needs. They would play a major role in designating future passenger rail corridors for development.

Amtrak proponents constantly point out that we need a government-subsidized system; the reason being there is not a successful passenger rail system in the world today that does not relyon heavy government subsidies. To some degree that's true, although, most are moving to a mix of the public and private sectors. However, America did not get to where we are today by copying others. Our history is replete with examples of meeting challenges by successfully developing new approaches and new models fostered by a "can-do" attitude. This is the attitude we need to develop a 21st century passenger rail model that meets the unique needs of the American people.

Can we successfully develop a model that funds the development of passenger rail infrastructure through a dedicated user tax, leaving the operational side to market forces? One only has to look at the naysayers who in the 1950s said we would never build a 43,000-mile interstate highway system funded by a dedicated user tax; or those who said developing an air transportation system to carry 650 million passengers a year efficiently and cost effectively was not possible.

Those journeys began with small steps that grew into today's successes. We must now start taking the steps necessary to make our passenger rail system an effective and convenient form of transportation in the United States. Let's get on with it.


Christopher Gleason, president of Gleason Financial Ltd. of Johnstown, Pa., is a member of the Amtrak Reform Council. He has served on various commissions and boards including the Amtrak Advisory Group for Congress' House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Growth Alliance, the Pennsylvania Aviation Advisory Committee and the National Motor Carriers Advisory Board under former President Bush.

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