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 included 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.