Back on Track: Northeast - High Speed Rail. Done Right.

If asked whether the Northeast Corridor is an asset to the region, the average individual that lives, works, or owns a business near the corridor would likely agree that the rail infrastructure which we currently rely on is a valuable asset. How else could a region with such a dense collection of housing and employment sustain itself if every individual relied on already congested highways for all their commuting and travel needs? We already know the Northeast Corridor carries 750,000 daily passengers, making travel and commuting in the region easier and more efficient. However, a quantitative understanding of the economic value that the Northeast Corridor brings to the region has always been lacking in the debate for infrastructure investment. What value does our current rail infrastructure represent in the economy? What value to the economy could be added if investment in stable, reliable, and high-speed rail infrastructure occurred? Thanks to the Northeast Corridor Commission, the first of those two questions has been answered. To answer the second, we may need to look to the UK for direction.


Amtrak's latest budget request to Congress proposes a new funding structure that would allow lawmakers to better understand the true funding needs of Amtrak, thus providing them with a clear choice in how to support the railroad. In the past, Amtrak has been provided budgets that delineate operational and capital expenses, masking the success and failure of specific routes into an overall net operating loss. Amtrak is now proposing a more transparent funding structure that shows the true costs of Amtrak's various business lines, which illustrates the $300 million profit the Northeast Corridor (NEC) makes, and the loss at which the state-supported (below $100 million) and long-distance (over $600 million) routes operate. The budget request would allow Amtrak to end the subsidization of the money-losing routes with NEC profits and instead invest that money back into NEC capital projects with additional federal capital support. The routes that require federal operating subsidy, the state-supported and long-distance routes, would be funded separately thus giving lawmakers a choice to either continue Amtrak service as it exists today or cut the operation subsidy.

Ultimately, the budget is all about unbundling costs. The net operating loss caused by the federally-mandated long-distance routes should not be used as ammunition by lawmakers to limit or eliminate support for Amtrak. If the federal government wants Amtrak to continue operating the long distance routes, they should help fund the full cost of those routes. The NEC should not suffer because of the funding shortfalls of the less profitable corridors. Instead we should reinvest NEC profits into NEC assets to improve its infrastructure and allow it to continue to expand in the growing Northeast megaregion.


On March 4th, President Obama revealed his $3.9 trillion fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which included a $302 billion, four-year reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, MAP-21. The reauthorization plan would provide a quick fix for the rapidly diminishing Highway Trust Fund with a one-time infusion of cash generated from closing loopholes in the corporate tax code. The trust fund is near insolvency mainly because the current federal gas tax, which has not seen an increase since 1993, is unable to sustain the fund. As the trust fund's balance approaches zero, the federal government will be forced to abandon its support of infrastructure projects across the country with devastating impacts on our economy. Our infrastructure is too important to be left to last-minute fixes that imperil us from year to year, we need a long-term solution that will improve our assets, build our economy and secure our future.

Reauthorization Roundup

usdot.jpgThe Reauthorization Roundup is a collection of news stories regarding the reauthorization of the surface transportation legislation, MAP-21, which expires on October 1st, 2014. This roundup of articles is especially salient due to the ongoing crisis regarding the Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run dry this year (see the U.S. DOT's Highway Trust Fund Ticker).

Reauthorization Roundup

US chamber of commerce backs gas tax hike to fund highways
The Columbian | Laura Litvan | February 12

US business, labor leaders urge congress to raise gas tax
Chicago Tribune | Eric Beech | February 12

Understanding the highway trust fund and the perils of inaction
Center for American Progress | Kevin DeGood | February 20

Foxx: highway trust fund 'on track to bounce checks before FY 2015
Better Roads | Amanda Bayhi | February 21

The national infrastructure bank: a cure-all for america's woes?
Georgetown Public Policy Review | Dennis Lytton | February 26

Obama proposes $302 billion, 4-year reauthorization bill, announces availability of $600 million in TIGER grants
Better Roads | Amanda Bayhi | February 26

Camp proposal would fund transportation, waterways infrastructure
E&E Daily | Nick Juliano and Annie Snider | February 27

Obama budget seeks new spending, new taxes to boost economy, tame debt

Washington Post | Zachary Goldfarb | March 4

Transportation reauthorization funding mechanism may be settled
Planetizen | Irvin Dawid | March 6

Funding shortage could delay U.S. road, rail projects this summer
Reuters | Elvina Nawaguna | March 12

Northeast Corridor in the News

FY14 appropriations good for TIGER, Amtrak
Railway Age | Douglas Bowen | January 15

NE high-speed rail on track despite Congress budget cuts
Daily Hampshire Gazette | Stephen Singer | January 19

Amtrak in market for dozens of high-speed trains
The Baltimore Sun | Kevin Rector | January 24

Thanks to the Superbowl, New York has its first regional transit map | Mark Byrnes | January 31

New Jersey Senate panel clears rail-merger plan | Paul Nussbaum | February 1

Gov. Malloy launches $10 million upgrade to Metro-North New Haven line power supply

New Haven Register | Michelle Tuccitto Sullo | February 7

In Amtrak's new locomotive, Biden sees work that helps move the economy | Paul Nussbaum | February 7

See the new Siemens Cities Sprinter in motion here (YouTube video).

Penn Station [Baltimore] "good repair" study is funded
Baltimore Brew | Mark Reutter | February 10

Metro-North officials promise to get railroad running right
Transportation Nation | Jim O'Grady | February 25

Why commuter trains aren't getting any less crowded
Transportation Nation | Jim O'Grady | February 25

Penn Station redevelopment may get out of the station
New York Business Journal | Staff | March 3

Rendell says maglev should be more than a dream | Paul Nussbaum | March 6

Amtrak sets key 2014 capital projects

Railway Age | William Vantuono | March 10

Photo: MTA / Kevin Ortiz

The New Haven Line needs such substantial repair work that at the current pace of investment it will take two decades to restore the line to full operating capacity, a new study by Regional Plan Association found. An analysis by RPA determined that $3.6 billion will be needed beyond what is currently budgeted to modernize the rail line, the busiest in the U.S.

Infrastructure on the 60-mile stretch of track between New York and Connecticut has been allowed to deteriorate, largely due to decades of underinvestment in critical repairs and upgrades. Delaying the repair work significantly raises the risk of unplanned outages and limits the line’s capacity to accommodate growing ridership. 

The New Haven Line carries 125,000 passengers every day on the Metro-North commuter line and on Amtrak trains between Boston and New York and plays a vital role in the economic life of the Northeast. The line's owners, the states of Connecticut and New York, have made significant progress improving the rail infrastructure they inherited in the 1970s in poor physical condition, despite major funding constraints. But funding shortfalls have forced both states to defer long overdue capital investment necessary to protect the line's operations and passengers.

The age-related problems that plague the line can be felt by passengers nearly every day. Five movable rail bridges, all well beyond their replacement age, get stuck open several times a week, delaying train traffic and causing ripple effects up and down the line. This year, the line suffered two major outages, including a derailment and collision in May that injured 76 people and an electrical outage in September that disrupted service on the line for more than two weeks.

RPA’s study, Getting Back on Track: Unlocking the Full Potential of the New Haven Line, documents the key issues affecting the rail line and outlines critical capital investments necessary for the line to function as a reliable, four-track railroad. RPA researchers found that an additional $3.6 billion is needed to repair or replace aging and obsolete infrastructure, beyond the $1 billion already budgeted by the state of Connecticut for this work.

“The New Haven Line supports the biggest and most diverse economy in the country, yet this crucial piece of infrastructure is no longer up to the task,” said RPA President Robert D. Yaro. “If we don’t maintain our vital infrastructure, we will be subjecting a generation of commuters and long-distance travelers to relentless, disruptive repair work and jeopardizing the growth and prosperity of our region,” he said. 

Expediting construction would mean disruptions to service in the short term, but would get the line back to its full, four-track capacity far sooner. This would allow the line to accommodate anticipated population growth and economic development along the New York-to-New Haven corridor. The upgrades also are crucial to accommodating passengers transferring from the region’s branch lines, including from the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter line, which is expected to begin service in 2016.

The study outlines an emergency action plan for the rail line to address major needed improvements, including: upgrades to power and signal systems; repairs to tracks and station platforms; and rehabilitation or replacement of the five movable bridges that are a source of continued service disruptions.

The full study can be viewed here:

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