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the government is here to help

By enelson
Friday, February 22nd, 2008 at 6:07 pm in Altamont Commuter Express, Amtrak, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), Freeways, Funding, rail, Transit vs. driving.


This morning I arrived to find a phone message from the Federal Railroad Administration. Seems someone in Washington had seen my story about California’s intercity rail services lobbying state government for more money.

What I might find helpful, the message said, was that the FRA had announced on Tuesday that it had started a new program to do just what the operators of the Auburn-to-San Jose Capitol Corridor and two other state-subsidized operators were looking for.

By helpful, I’m guessing he meant, you missed this, buddy, and should have┬áincluded this in your story.

I admit that I could have mentioned the issue of federal funding for passenger rail, and the message was troubling. What had I missed? Did I need to write another story?

Then I read the news release:

For the first time ever, states will be directly eligible for federal funding to support intercity passenger rail service under a new grant program, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters announced today…

Peters explained that the $30 million capital grant program is designed to support state efforts to improve intercity passenger rail service and requires a 50-50 funding match …

Hold on — $30 million? Million with an M? For the entire United States of America? This is what I should be excited about?

Thirty million would certainly be handy around the house, but in terms of infrastructure investment, it’s like, well, the two weeks’ extra severance I’d get if I signed buyout papers.

Thirty mil would be enough to buy six double-decker Amtrak cars, a locomotive and maybe a new platform to park the set next to.

Just for the Capitol Corridor, the San Joaquins that run from Oakland to Bakersfield and Southern California’s No. 2-in-the-nation Surfliner routes, the state has already this year budgeted $150 million to purchase six new train sets.

Not wanting to make hasty conclusions, I called the Capitol Corridor’s Oakland-based managing director, Gene Skoropowski, a railroad guru if ever there was one.

“We laugh at the money,” he said, “but they’ve established the program,” which is something railroad officials have been working on for three decades.

“We said forget the money, the program is established. When they find out what the pent-up demand is, they’ll increase the money.” Plus, there are some bills in Congress that could pump up the program to something closer to a number that starts with B.

I should disclaim here that I’m a beneficiary of the 50 percent taxpayer subsidy for the Capitol Corridor, commuting on the train when I can from my Central Valley enclave to Oakland. I like the train. They sell beer and I can watch DVDs on my laptop while they blow the horn and do the driving.

And even though the program isn’t big enough to pay for even one Joint Strike Fighter in-flight entertainment system, it will probably be enough to defray the costs of some small, but vital improvements to California’s rail system.

Those improvements include such things as crossovers, those X’s that allow passenger trains more places to switch tracks and pass slower freight trains rather than plod along behind them. One of them being contemplated near Benicia will cost $5 million to $6 million, split between the state and feds.

Of course, my riding the train and consuming all of that overpriced beer may have clouded my objectivity. One dear reader suggested that subsidized railroads are “garbage” and passenger railroads are 50 years out of date and in general are a foul instrument of the “skyscraper people.”

A very thoughtful reader described in an e-mail watching empty Amtrak cars (probably Capitol Corridor, which are staffed by Amtrak) rolling by his workplace:

In my opinion, our country is facing dwindling revenues (unless we all want to be taxed more and more) and squandering our precious transportation dollars on a poorly attended route seems not to make sense (nor does subsidizing someone’s choice to live in Sacramento and work in Oakland).

He believes that we need alternatives to driving, but knowing the exact costs of different modes will help all of us find the best way move around for the buck.

I’m all for cost-effectiveness, too, but for some people that includes how much house and what kind of neighborhood you can get for the buck in greater Manteca.

Until the Bay Area can sort out those related issues, we’re still going to need reasonable alternatives to lure those people off of the freeways.

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5 Responses to “the government is here to help”

  1. Mike Says:

    First, I appreciate this blog. It’s nice to hear the things that don’t make it into the printed articles and your opinions on the subject of transportation.

    Caltrain (also operated under a contract with Amtrak) “reinvented” itself mid-decade and the results have been a success. Make it possible for the train to be competitive with the car and people will ride. I took a 4:33pm baby bullet on Wednesday, and it was busy the entire length of the route. People who exited at the mid-Peninsula stations were replaced with new riders going to San Jose. Caltrain says that are taking in more revenue under this operating pattern, because people can ride longer distances (which cost more) in less time.

    I realize that public transportation is subsidized, but do consider that those who use transit are frequently doing so to earn wages, which are taxed. In some sense we are just reaping some benefit from our tax payments. I rode Caltrain for nearly 3 years before taking a job where I work exclusively at home.

    Finally, roads are certainly heavily subsidized…gas taxes and fees do not come close to covering the cost of construction and maintenance.

    I’m with you–give me a train, a laptop with something to read or watch and I’m a happy commuter. The rest of you can enjoy the traffic jams and accidents.

  2. e Says:

    I’d like to echo what Mike said. I don’t think you need to “disclaim [that you’re] a beneficiary of the 50 percent taxpayer subsidy for the Capitol Corridor”.

    Does an automobile driver ever disclaim that they’re a beneficiary of the 100% taxpayer subsidy when they’re driving on local roads? They just assume that everyone is happy to pay for the traffic cops, street repair crews, and hospitals so that we can have many lanes of traffic streaming around our towns.

    Personally I’d rather see my tax dollars spent on safer, more space & fuel efficient transit.

  3. the government deserves more credit - The Capricious Commuter - Getting around the Bay Area with Erik N. Nelson Says:

    […] the government is here to help […]

  4. Guy Span Says:

    God’s teeth! The Government is here to help you. Here’s a link to an older story of how the president wanted to help. This was his previous plan for Amtrak:

    This is a cut and paste from the current FRA press release:

    Sounds nice. Has anyone bothered to look at the details of the “Intercity Passenger Rail Reform?” It should properly be titled the Passenger Rail Elimination Act. I remain amazed that this administration can sugar-coat cow pies and people (sorry Erik) line up to swallow them.

    Take a close look at this and decide if you prefer humble pie or cow pie.

  5. Guy Span Says:

    Oops. It dropped the cut and paste:

    “Peters stressed that creation of a federal-state funding partnership was specifically called for by the Bush Administration as part of its long standing intercity passenger rail reform effort.”

    Here’s the link:

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