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Hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation - The Future of Passenger Rail: What's Next for the Northeast Corridor?

Hearing

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

When trains first began to travel from Baltimore to Washington in 1835, highways did not exist. Roads between towns and cities were made of dirt and travelling between cities took days. The arrival of trains changed that. Railroads were initially built to move freight from ports to commercial centers. Moving commuters was an afterthought. Then, railroads found that trains could move a large number of people efficiently. Passenger train travel became a viable alternative, but it was not fast. The first train travelling from Baltimore arrived in Wheeling -- in my home state, although West Virginia did not yet exist -- in 16 hours.

The rise of the automobile and interstate bus companies caused a plunge in the popularity of rail travel. The Interstate Highway System -- a strong example of how the federal government can strategically plan for our transportation needs -- was the catalyst for passenger rail's decline. By the 1970s, the system was on the verge of collapse. Passenger rail was not financially viable, so Congress created Amtrak. However, it failed to establish a viable strategy for passenger rail to succeed. Amtrak and passenger rail in general has limped along financially since it was created. 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 transportation system we rely on to travel through the Northeast and the rest of the country is from another era. Commercial expansion has resulted in vast economic powerhouses of cities that grew to this level because of their strategic commercial significance. Transportation networks were developed around and between them, creating a dense, interconnected region. And with this economic density comes complex transportation challenges. Spend some time travelling in the Northeast and one thing is clear -- it's very, very busy. The highways are jammed beyond capacity, overloaded with cars and trucks. The airspace is the busiest in the country, where delays are frequent and have nationwide consequences. Even the passenger rail systems are at capacity.

The transportation network is overwhelmed, and it is beginning to have consequences. The region is responsible for 20 percent of the country's GDP. This translates to $2.4 trillion annually. When traffic congestion and delays cost the region $22 billion in lost productivity each year, it is no longer just a transportation issue. It becomes an economic issue. It is clear that a healthy transportation network in the Northeast is vital to the nation's economy. However, building more highways are either infeasible or astronomically costly in this dense region.

More and more every day, the system is creaking under the stress of more and more users. Our transportation infrastructure is old, crumbling, and in too many places obsolete. On the Northeast Corridor, dramatic investment is needed right now just to maintain existing capacity. Everyone in this room knows that simply maintaining what we have in the Northeast Corridor is not enough. 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. I truly believe our country's lack of focus on investing in our infrastructure is endangering our ability to continue as a global leader.

The federal government can lead on rebuilding our infrastructure. We can put together a coherent, long-term plan for how to position this country's interconnected transportation system for the future. But we need the will to do it, which is something that has been lacking in this building in recent years. We need the stakeholder community to push and work with us to fully meet the present and future needs of the Corridor. I have an Infrastructure Fund bill that would leverage private funds to maximize the return on federal taxpayer dollars. This is one way to help fill the funding gap, but all funding ideas and options must be on the table.

The bottom line is that investments in our rail transportation infrastructure are only part of the solution. In the last week alone, this Committee has looked at how freight mobility will change in the next decade and how the aviation industry is modernizing to compete on a global level. The private sector has plans for how it will adapt to this century's technological advancements and opportunities. We will hear today that Amtrak is working on a plan for the Corridor's future needs. However, our federal transportation programs are divided by jurisdictional and programmatic siloes in a way that prevents us from developing a comprehensive strategy for rail, highways, and air traffic. We in Congress are not acting in a way that allows for a comprehensive intermodal strategy to guide investment. The future of America in the world economy depends on us rising to the challenge.


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