President Obama's proposal to spend $50 billion on transportation infrastructure—including 4,000 miles of rail lines—couldn't be a better expenditure of our federal tax dollars. Actually, it's a miracle that Amtrak has lasted these past 40 years, since President Richard Nixon deliberately designed it for failure. Different administrations—Democratic and Republican—have either ignored passenger rail or, like President George W. Bush, actively sought to scuttle it.
James McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, tells the story of Amtrak and America's relationship with trains. He points out that most legislators who vote on appropriations for passenger trains have never ridden a train. Others have been adamant that Amtrak make a profit, even though, the truth is, there is no public transportation system in the world that earns a profit. Highways and airports are not money-makers either but the federal government subsidizes them to the tune of $180 billion per year, while Amtrak only gets $1 billion.
After 100 years of moving people within our cities and around the country, trains lost favor because people were sick of the corrupt conduct of the railroad corporations, the vehicles were dirty, and the staff was rude or mean. Ridership had been steadily declining since 1920. After World War II, the nation made a dramatic switch to highways spurred on by the automobile, oil, and tire companies, which conspired—or at least lobbied—against the public transportation system for their own interests, as depicted in the 1996 PBS film, Taken for a Ride (and its 2008 Part II version).
Promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 required citizens to finance the Interstates by paying 15 to 20 percent of the price of a gallon of gas. The 46,876-mile Interstate system took 35 years to complete and cost $128.9 billion. The feds paid 90 percent of the cost or about $114 billion—$425 billion in 2006 dollars—even though the Interstates were under the control of the states. Governors and mayors signed onto this massive public works plan without hesitation because they saw it as an economic development tool for their cities. (They would be proved wrong within a couple of decades.)
As more and more people needed and bought cars, they found themselves stuck in more traffic jams and contending with endless road repair. Operating an automobile amounted to $6,000 to $7,000 per year (outside its purchase) and the accident and death rates related to cars—at least 40,000 deaths per year—were overwhelming.
Building the Interstates in the cities also drastically changed urban life. Neighborhoods were torn up to make way for the highway and social stratification and racial discrimination intensified as middle class white people migrated to the suburbs and left poor people and minority groups behind. Downtowns that were designed for pedestrians became congested and the influx of cars made them frustrating to navigate. Old buildings were demolished to create surface parking, which then created gaping, ugly holes in the cityscape. People felt unsafe and increasingly reluctant to go downtown. Retail moved to the suburbs and other companies eventually followed. All of this migration ended up depleting the tax base and making ghost towns out of once vibrant and prosperous downtowns.
By the late 1990s, transportation engineers and analysts began questioning the Interstate's "externalities" as they determined the costs of pollution, energy waste, land disruption, accidents, time wasted in traffic jams, etc. They also learned that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to add highway lanes and interchanges didn't relieve congestion.
Meanwhile, the airlines tried to make up for their operational costs with reduced leg room, poorer air quality, and overcrowding. Greater demand for air travel also necessitated building or expanding airports, which took up a lot of tax dollars.
With the 1990s came new attitudes toward cities and toward the environment. Young people and "empty nesters" found cities a "hip" place to live and began moving back. They reduced their car usage and demanded more public transportation options. People started a movement to restore historic buildings and revitalize their downtowns.
At the same time, rail advocates were keeping Amtrak barely alive. Among them was Gil Carmichael, a former highway lobbyist, owner of five car dealerships and an airport charter service. He later founded the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver where he advocates for what he calls Interstate II, which involves double- or triple-tracking 20,000 to 30,000 miles of mainline freight railroads, establishing corridors for high-speed trains, and eventually electrifying trains to replace diesel engines. Carmichael estimates this could all be done in 20 years for 2 cents on the motor fuel tax. "We have this incredible railroad network that goes out all over this land from city center to city center. That's what is so amazing. It's already there," said Carmichael in Waiting on a Train.
Another idea that train advocates promote is the re-establishment of a combined freight and passenger rail system through private-public partnerships that work with state transportation departments. Dedicated passenger lines have a multiplier effect that can relieve traffic congestion, diminish flight delay, reduce freight bottlenecks, reduce this country's carbon footprint, and accommodate people without cars or the means or desire to fly.
When Amtrak was created, politicians, lobbyists, and fiscal conservatives really wanted to deep-six passenger rail altogether within two years. It was only through political wrangling and arm-twisting that train advocates were able to save passenger rail by separating it from freight and calling it Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. That did not mean, however, that it would be efficient, well-funded, or make a profit, despite Nixon's caveat that the new railroad be off the government "dole" as soon as possible.
Could there be a renaissance in trains? Yes, says McCommons, because, as the nation's population increases, as more people decide to lead urban lives and as cities increase in density, it makes sense to use rail—especially with energy costs expected to climb.
"In terms of efficiency—fuel savings, lower carbon outputs, smaller footprint on the landscape—the advantage is really rail," said Anthony Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge (quoted by McCommons). "It has been significantly underinvested in and disadvantaged against the other modes. We once had good train service in this country. We need to recover that capacity."
The Obama administration gave Amtrak $8 billion in the stimulus package and another $1.3 billion for passenger car rehabilitation and infrastructure repair on the Northeast Corridor. Vice President Joe Biden, a train buff and consistent passenger during his senatorial days, apparently had a lot to do with this boost for Amtrak. This is all a good start, but we still have a long way to go.
Olga Bonfiglio teaches a sustainable cities class at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and is the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has also written for several national magazines.