Yesterday was a tough day to try to get attention for a Senate hearing on the future of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. After all, at least one senator had gotten a poisonous letter and everyone on Capitol Hill was on high alert. What’s more, the Amtrak hearing coincided with the vote on gun control, one of the most dramatic and high-stakes votes in the body so far this session.
Even Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, a passionate supporter of Amtrak, gave his opening statement and scooted out of the room to join the action on the Senate floor.
Before he left, Rockefeller lambasted Congress for creating Amtrak and then failing to establish a viable strategy for it to succeed. “Amtrak, and passenger rail in general, has limped along financially since it was created,” Rockefeller said. “Unpredictable federal financial support has been a detriment to Amtrak’s core responsibility to provide travel for millions of Americans and continues to hamper its long-term planning.”
The consequences, he said, are $22 billion in lost productivity each year due to congestion on the highways and in the airspace above the region. “Everyone in this room knows that simply maintaining what we have in the Northeast Corridor is not enough,” he said. “We need to provide expanded capacity to meet future needs of the region. Throwing $22 billion down the drain annually in this economy – all because we cannot agree that transportation infrastructure is a priority – is shameful.”
He put in a plug for his infrastructure bank bill and encouraged the transportation establishment to break down its modal siloes, which he compared to the intelligence community’s turf battles that were exposed after 9/11.
Frank Lautenberg’s absence at a hearing on his beloved Northeast Corridor was glaring. Health problems have kept Lautenberg away from the Hill for about a month, and though he did make it back yesterday – in a wheelchair – to vote for the gun control measure, he didn’t make an appearance at the hearing.
The Northeast Corridor carries twice as many trains today as in 1976, said Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman, making the corridor “among the most heavily-used rail lines in world.” About 150 Amtrak trains, 2,000 commuter trains (run by eight different agencies), and 70 freight trains run up and down that track daily.