Amtrak Oversight? Yes! But Let’s Make Sure It’s Meaningful.
February 10, 2023
By Sean Jeans-Gail
Congressman Troy Nehls (R-TX-22), the new chair of the U.S. House subcommittee responsible for passenger rail policy, has indicated he will use his new position to scrutinize Amtrak operations and the railroad’s vision for adding new services and expanding its network. However, some of his recent comments to the press are ringing alarm bells.
Rep. Nehls was recently announced as the Chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. However, with House leadership focused on the upcoming aviation reauthorization, his subcommittee is likely to focus its passenger rail efforts on the oversight and implementation of the rail programs included as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 (BIL).
In an interview with Bloomberg Government, Rep. Nehls shed some light on his agenda for Amtrak. Unsurprisingly, Rep. Nehls expressed a commitment to keeping a close eye on how the billions in BIL rail funds are being spent.
“We just got to make sure that there’s some oversight, and that we ensure that the billions that they are spending, that it’s being spent wisely,” Rep. Nehls told Bloomberg reporters.
That is both appropriate and necessary. The BIL addresses decades of underinvestment in passenger rail with a relatively rapid increase in funding for intercity rail programs (although still well below what the government spends on highways and aviation). Pre-BIL, the federal government spent under $3 billion per year on rail programs. Post-BIL, that number increased to just under $17 billion in Fiscal Year 2023. With increased funding will come increased scrutiny.
Other comments by the new chairman, however, betray a fundamental misunderstanding of Amtrak’s mission.
“When I think about Amtrak I mean, it just seems to be a loser,” said Rep. Nehls. “It’s kind of like the Post Office. We keep funding, keep funding using taxpayer money.”
Rail Passengers has been battling this kind of thinking for decades. Amtrak isn’t a private sector business; it is a public agency that provides a service to Americans. A disproportionate amount of these communities are rural towns with limited interstate travel choices. With few alternatives, driving plays an outsized role, and it does so at a cost; 19 percent of Americans live in rural communities, but they account for 49 percent of the total number of traffic fatalities nationwide
As we’ve said many times before: the question is not about if Amtrak makes money; it does. Rather, it’s about who Amtrak makes money for: the communities served by Amtrak. Rail Passengers’ modeling suggests that Amtrak’s interconnected services return between $7 billion and $8 billion each year to our Nation’s GDP—four times what the federal government typically invests in the service.
And Rail Passengers has made significant headway in forging a bipartisan consensus on this issue. In 2018, the Senate voted on an amendment from Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) that established a sense of Congress that “long-distance passenger rail routes provide much-needed transportation access for 4,700,000 riders in 325 communities in 40 States and are particularly important in rural areas… and long-distance passenger rail routes and services should be sustained to ensure connectivity throughout the National Network.” That amendment was overwhelmingly approved by a vote of 95 to 4, with overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats. A version of the text from that amendment has been included in every annual appropriations bill since then.
Rail Passengers will work to ensure that any oversight is conducted with the goal of strengthening the Amtrak network, not rolling it back.
“We look forward to working with Chairman Sam Graves and Chairman Nehls—along with the other members of the Committee on both sides of the aisle—on ensuring that there is meaningful oversight on these newly expanded passenger rail programs and on Amtrak operations,” said Rail PassengersPresident and CEO Jim Mathews. “There will be real challenges with effectively ramping up capital investment programs, both within Amtrak and at the state level. But we cannot return to the days of asking whether America needs Amtrak. Our staff has been traveling all across the country to visit with mayors and citizens interested in using the BIL to bring Amtrak to their towns and to upgrade existing service. We know the answer: Americans want more trains!”
There's more than anecdotal evidence to support this. A poll comissioned by Rail Passengers in 2022 found that 78% of respondents believe having a strong passenger rail system in the U.S. is “important” and 66% support adding more routes to the current rail network.
"The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done yeoman work over the years and in fact if it weren’t for NARP, I'd be surprised if Amtrak were still in possession of as a large a network as they have. So they've done good work, they're very good on the factual case."
Robert Gallamore, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University and former Federal Railroad Administration official, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University
November 17, 2005, on The Leonard Lopate Show (with guest host Chris Bannon), WNYC New York.