Josh Lapp drives on Interstate 71 so frequently that he knows to give himself extra time to get from his home in Columbus, Ohio, to clients in Cincinnati or Cleveland. Sometimes, traffic congestion is the culprit that lengthens a two-hour drive and sometimes it’s a crash — unless it’s both.
“I lose a whole day of productivity when I drive, but the highway is my only option,” said Lapp, 31, an urban planner. A proposed alternative would bring a different set of wheels through the corridor.
The nation’s passenger rail service is eyeing the 250-mile swath across Ohio for one of 39 proposed new routes. Using its success in the populous Northeast Corridor as a model, Amtrak is pushing a $75 billion expansion to bring trains to dozens of cities and towns across the nation.
The ambitious plan coincides with the passenger railroad gaining a powerful ally in the White House, where new priorities in Washington laud rail and alternate modes of transportation. The proposal comes as the nation targets infrastructure investments to exit a coronavirus pandemic-induced economic crisis, while state and local officials increasingly are open to options that address highway congestion and climate change.
President Joe Biden, who rode Amtrak for more than three decades during his time in Congress, is calling for an unprecedented boost in federal aid for trains — a turnaround for a railroad that for decades has struggled to draw financial support and, until recently, faced funding cuts under the Trump administration.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Biden said recently at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to mark 50 years of Amtrak service. Intercity rail, he said, can “play a central role in our transformation in transportation and economic future, to make investments that can help America get back on track — no pun intended.”
Expanding the nation’s train network in 15 years, as the passenger rail proposes, rests on Amtrak’s ability to secure billions of dollars both for the service and for costly improvements to an aging and inadequate rail infrastructure — and on multiple states being willing partners. Opponents say there is insufficient demand to warrant the proposal’s hefty price tag.
Even if those goals are conquered, Amtrak would still need a nation in love with cars to come back to the rails.
Seeking to replicate NE system
Amtrak aspires to connect major city centers in the American heartland, the South and portions of the West, where it says it can replicate the service model of the Northeast — its busiest and most lucrative corridor — into areas of the country with significant growth and little or no rail service.
The expansion is long overdue, Amtrak and its supporters say. The railroad’s service map has remained nearly unchanged in its five decades, even as the nation’s population has grown by more than 120 million. Texas and Florida, two of the fastest-growing states, are largely underserved by passenger rail.
“It’s our responsibility to provide service in places where 50 years ago there may not have been a need for service, but today there is a crying need for service,” Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia said in an interview. “As the nation’s national rail network, we should be providing it.”
Intercity train operations are clustered around the Northeast, as well as Chicago and in the Pacific Northwest. The Washington-to-Boston corridor is the spine of Amtrak’s operations.
Before the pandemic, trains between the nation’s capital and New York carried three times as many riders between the two cities as airlines did. Amtrak carried 32.5 million passenger trips nationwide in 2019, and its two routes in the Northeast Corridor — the Acela and Northeast Regional — ferried about 40% of the ridership.
Amtrak’s 28 short-haul routes, which are funded by the states they serve, carry about half its passengers. The growth strategy relies on increasing state-supported service alongside an infusion of federal dollars.
By 2035, new rail corridors would connect major metropolitan areas within 400 miles, with Amtrak seeking to replace a portion of the vehicle and airline trips between them. Its blue, white and red trains would reach 160 new communities and 20 million more passengers a year.
The expansion of the passenger rail network would return trains to cities where none have picked up passengers in decades, such as Phoenix — the nation’s 10th-largest metro area — Las Vegas and Columbus. It would enhance service in places like Cleveland and Charlotte, served only by long-distance trains that arrive overnight. It would connect busy corridors such as Atlanta-to-Nashville, and Houston-to-Dallas — offering an alternative to traffic-clogged highways.
About 25 Amtrak routes would have more trains. In corridors with growing demand, such as Los Angeles-to-San Diego and Seattle-to-Portland, Ore., the number of round trips would more than double.
Trains would use the same tracks that carry passengers on 15 long-distance routes spanning 46 states. (Only Wyoming and South Dakota are not served by Amtrak in the contiguous United States.) Plans for new service corridors already are advancing in Virginia, North Carolina and between the Chicago-Milwaukee region and the Minneapolis area. Amtrak is pushing for a restart next year to a route from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., where service was discontinued after Hurricane Katrina.
Federal law says states must fund passenger train operations on routes shorter than 750 miles. Amtrak wants to change the policy, which it says is a disincentive for some states — unwilling to take on the financial burden — to embrace rail.
In an annual grant request to Congress in April, Amtrak sought federal support to fund the proposed new routes over a five-year period. The railroad would be able to develop new corridors more quickly, Amtrak said, and provide more frequent service in areas where long-distance trains provide less-than-daily service.
“Then we can transition states into sharing more of the costs once they stabilize and once the service is a success,” said Amtrak President Stephen Gardner.
In Ohio, where Amtrak is proposing two new routes, rail advocates hope the company’s pledge to pay upfront costs, pending congressional approval, will prompt state leaders to get onboard.
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has not committed to the proposal, citing concerns about the cost to the state, and his office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. His predecessor, Republican Gov. John Kasich, turned down $400 million in federal funds for a Cincinnati-to-Cleveland rail project during the Obama administration because he said the service would be too expensive for the state. At the time, estimates put Ohio’s annual share of operating funds at $17 million for a service that would have carried 500,000 passengers annually.
“Because Amtrak is coming forward and saying, ‘look, we not only want to provide the service, but we’ll do this on our own dime,’ I think that’s perked up a lot of ears among public officials,” said Stu Nicholson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group All Aboard Ohio.
Since Amtrak announced its proposal earlier this year, rail advocacy groups have discussed how to broaden support for the idea, carrying a message that rail can revitalize downtowns, create jobs and offer a more environmentally friendly mode of travel.
“We never imagined that Amtrak would ever go on offense like this. They’ve always been, politically speaking, on defense ever since they were created,” Nicholson said. “The difference now is that this is Amtrak coming to states like Ohio, knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got five different corridor trains that we want to have serve Ohio.’”
The $75 billion price tag, spent over 15 years, would cover the cost of stations, train cars, locomotives and infrastructure, Amtrak says. Biden’s proposed funding is viewed as critical to kick-start the program, but other federal funding programs would be needed.
Because funding would be required at the state level, advocates say one challenge is striking a balance between pursuing new corridors while not distracting from projects in states already invested in rail. Virginia is among the states leading the way with a $3.7 billion rail program that seeks to double passenger trains within the decade.
“Can we get 48 different states to start working together on a national passenger rail program across multiple election cycles? I don’t think so,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the Rail Passengers Association. “So we need to make sure to invest in states like North Carolina, Virginia, California, New York, Pennsylvania, and some in the Midwest [who are] putting their own money in and are ready to go, so we don’t hold up their progress trying to get the other 40 states on board.”
$60B backlog in projects
When Congress created Amtrak in 1970 after the demise of for-profit passenger railroads, the nation’s rail infrastructure already was aging. Decades of underinvestment and neglect have created a system that is at capacity and falls short of modern railroad standards.
Amtrak and the federal government in recent years have identified dozens of projects that would rebuild and expand tunnels, bridges and tracks that are near or at the end of their useful lives.
Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes $80 billion for rail over five years — mostly benefiting Amtrak — would address the passenger rail’s repair backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor and extend service to more cities, all in line with Amtrak’s vision. Two-thirds of the new funding would support existing routes, including in the Northeast, according to the White House. The rest would support new or improved intercity and freight operations.
Republicans in the Senate offered their own infrastructure bill that includes $20 billion for rail. House Democrats followed with a transportation funding bill that calls for $95 billion for rail, including a tripling of funding to Amtrak.
Amtrak and its supporters are cheering the president’s plan, but Biden’s proposal still would fall short of the money Amtrak needs for repairs and expansion. The company estimates it has a backlog of $60.2 billion in projects, with about $45 billion of that in the Northeast Corridor.
Among those is the $4.5 billion replacement of the Civil War-era Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel in Maryland and a $11.6 billion plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River, a structure more than a century old that sees about 200,000 daily passenger trips in the New York area.
Amtrak receives about $2 billion of federal subsidies annually to cover operations in its national and Northeast networks, as well as other grants and funding for state-sponsored service.
Amtrak’s financial health had improved in recent years. In November 2019, months before the pandemic began in the United States, it was projecting positive earnings in 2020 for the first time. The health crisis derailed those prospects as ridership and revenue plunged 97%. Ridership has rebounded to one-third of pre-pandemic levels after the worst economic hit in Amtrak history.
Back in Ohio, Amtrak projects the Cincinnati-to-Cleveland trip would take just under five hours with trains making seven stops and topping speeds of 70 mph. Amtrak officials said it would be competitive with driving, considering that travelers often make fuel and food stops while encountering traffic delays. The downtown-to-downtown trip via I-71 takes about 3 hours 46 minutes.
Lapp, the Columbus urban planner, who shares a low-range electric car with his husband, said he would park the car and board a train if he had the choice.
“I would be able to enjoy myself by reading or doing work,” he said.”That would be a lot better than staring out the windshield of a car.”
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