How to really fix the NEC

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lost in the fight between President Trump and U.S. Senate minority leader Schumer over fixing Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor—the blood between them now so bad that whatever one of them wants, the other opposes—is the fact that a credible solution to the steady deterioration of this asset lies in front of us. In theory, at least, this solution would not cost taxpayers anything. So you have to wonder: Why can’t this idea get a public airing?

That idea is for Congress to order the lease the NEC’s infrastructure to a private company, which would improve and maintain the property. In a nutshell: The Surface Transportation Board would award the 50-year lease. Amtrak, the commuter and freight railroads and anyone else operating trains over the property would pay user fees. Capital of $30 billion would be supplied by the leasing company ($2.5 billion) and by a $27.5 billion Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan from the federal government. That money would go to make the critically needed improvements, including new Hudson River tunnels. For a more-complete explanation, go to www.airnet-21.com or read my column in the May 2014 issue of Trains Magazine.

As I put it in that column: “Everyone seems to win. Amtrak wins. It receives $1 billion and is freed of seeking the capital for the Northeast Corridor that has always been out of reach. The public wins by finally getting the functional and modern high-speed railroad it deserves, with more choices and faster trips. Taxpayers win because the RRIF loan is a balance sheet transaction and not an appropriation of scarce tax dollars. The government wins because in 50 years its loan is repaid and it gets back a much-improved asset.”

So again, why is this proposal sitting in plain sight and being ignored by both politicians and the news organization? The simple answer is inertia—people hate change. “Unfortunately, we tend to move when disaster strikes,” says former congressman and New Jersey governor James Florio. “This is not the highest priority, though it should be. We are going to have to wait for difficulties to become more visible to the public. You’d think that with leadership somewhere it would happen faster.” Just to be clear, Florio is associated with Rail Infrastructure Management LLC, which would like to win the lease of the NEC in an STB proceeding.

Leadership. . . wow. Remember when we had real political leadership? If Schumer were to get behind this, President Trump would demonize it in a second. And if support came from the White House, the Democratic cry would be about the “great giveaway.” And, of course, the present owner of the failing Northeast Corridor, Amtrak, is opposed, never mind that it has failed utterly to maintain or improve the NEC.

There you have it, our broken-down system of government, unwilling to even entertain and debate a sensible idea meant to address a pressing problem when there is so much more to be gained by mindless partisan attacks on the other side. Leaders of both political parties in Congress are aware of this proposal, as is the White House. But there we sit, waiting (in Florio’s words) “for the next bridge or tunnel to collapse.”—Fred W. Frailey

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