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MIPRC: Let’s take a comprehensive look at how we want our nation’s passenger rail system to run
Jon Davis
/ Categories: News

MIPRC: Let’s take a comprehensive look at how we want our nation’s passenger rail system to run

Amtrak’s ConnectUS plan is welcome, but doesn’t go far enough; with FAST Act reauthorization, we have an opportunity to to create a truly national network

As Amtrak proposes to reconfigure the national network, it’s also time to reconfigure the cost-share for these new corridor services. The Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission has been working to preserve and improve our nation’s and region’s passenger rail system for 20 years. Based on our extensive knowledge of and history working with both Amtrak and our state DOTS, MIPRC is offering a proposal for a wide-ranging re-envisioning of Amtrak to ensure the development of the strong, national passenger rail system our country needs:

  • For many years, Amtrak subsisted on minimal federal funding support, with almost yearly threats to lower or do away altogether with that funding.
  • In the face of that insecurity, the states took on a critically important role and responsibility to develop any new passenger rail routes.
  • While those years resulted in some wonderful and important development of state-supported service frequencies, that funding model is not ideal and not sustainable. State-supported passenger rail service in its current form – wherein the states bear the burden of Amtrak-defined operating costs of any route less than 750 miles in length – has been a big financial burden on states. This has resulted in shorter-distance passeneger rail service too often being subject to changes in state political leadership.
  • Despite all these struggles, passenger rail has proven itself to be a critically important mode of transportation for both urban and rural areas of our region, one that needs to dramatically increase in order to meet passenger transportation and carbon reduction needs in the years to come.
  • With a large infusion of federal infrastructure funding for passenger rail being proposed and federal surface transportation reauthorization on the horizon, we have a key, unprecedented opportunity to re-envision Amtrak into the truly national network it is meant to be, with the added benefit of creating and sustaining strong middle-class jobs throughout the system and within the supply-chain network that supports it.
  • MIPRC believes that this re-envisioning can be much broader and stronger than anything that Amtrak has proposed thus far. 
  • Instead of Amtrak undertaking corridor development that would then be turned back to the states along each route to financially support in coming years, MIPRC proposes enabling Amtrak to fund and operate a truly national network.
  • A way that Congress can empower Amtrak to do that is by having Amtrak financially incorporate a majority of current state-supported routes as well as newly developed routes into its National Network. Specifically, MIPRC proposes that multistate corridors longer than 250 miles in length be funded for both development and ongoing operating costs by Amtrak. 

New corridor services and frequencies are now part of Amtrak’s vision for what its national network can and should be. But states should not be left the entire burden of paying for them once built. That’s why we propose lowering the PRIIA Section 209 threshold from 750 miles to 250 miles, and funding Amtrak to ensure operation of a truly national network for the remainder of the 21st century.

How did we come up with the 250-mile threshold for state support vs. national network?

MIPRC has examined new routes proposed by Amtrak and local stakeholders in the Midwest that traverse multiple states and that may face challenges with implementation if they rely on multiple states agreeing to operating funding support. MIPRC looked at the mileage of these routes and most fall between 250 miles and the current threshold of 750 miles, and all are closer to 250. The average of these routes is 277 miles. These proposed new routes connect key city pairs that would be part of a regional and national system, and lend themselves to falling under the Amtrak national network grant. 

MIPRC's proposal is just a starting point for a needed in-depth conversation on how to make our country's passenger rail system truly a network and truly national. Other ways of building a truly national network could be achieved through ideas such as Amtrak having the responsibility of developing and funding the operation of the first one or two frequencies of passenger rail service, with the states having some responsibility for funding additional frequencies as ridership demands.

We look forward to this conversation and to seeing our nation’s passenger rail system become a vibrant network of fast, clean and frequent service – meeting the needs of both rural and urban citizens – that the Midwest has long known it can be.

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