Amtrak plans major expansion by 2035 if federal infrastructure bill passes

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Columbus is the state capital of Ohio, a city of nearly 900,000 people and at the heart of a 15-county region which is the fastest growing in the Midwest, according to William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC). It is also “the largest city in the country that is not part of Amtrak’s national network,” he said. Columbus is one of many towns and rural areas hoping to benefit from the project largest federal investment in passenger rail in Amtrak’s 50-year history.

Amid the optimism of the early months of the Biden administration earlier this year, Amtrak CEO William Flynn unveiled a national roads map with a new passenger train service added in pencil to many parts of the country. For now, the fate of Amtrak’s expansion rests with Congress. If House Democrats agree to pass the bipartisan $ 1,000 billion infrastructure bill, the country’s passenger railroad could see a boon exceeding $ 100 billion over the next five years. The bill guarantees $ 66 billion for freight and passenger rail transport and an addal $ 36 billion that are submitted to future Congress appropriations.

Transportation planners in the Midwest, Southeast, and West are examining the Corridor identification and development program, designed to help states establish new intercity trains, extend existing routes, or restore previous services. Examples of existing routes that could grow include Chicago-Milwaukee, Washington, DC-Roanoke, Virginia and Vancouver, BC-Seattle-Portland, Oregon. Future new service could include Atlanta-Charlotte, North Carolina, Cleveland-Detroit, and Atlanta-Nashville.

“This sets up a better framework for states and Amtrak to work together to expand service,” said Mark Weitenbeck, treasurer of the Wisconsin Association of Rail Passengers. Under the new legislation, the US Department of Transportation could support a project for several years through a phased funding agreement until the state, or multi-state agreement, takes over.

If the program is fully implemented by 2035, Amtrak expects to have added 30 or more new routes and increased service on at least 20 existing lines. Up to 160 communities would see new Amtrak service, and 15 states would gain multiple daily trips.

When Amtrak took over responsibility for most of the nation’s intercity passenger train services in 1971, it served 43 states with 184 daily trains. Although it works now 300 trains per day in 46 states, parts of Canada and the District of Columbia, its road map has little changed from 1971. It is despite rapid population growth in Sun Belt cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix and Austin, Texas, and job changes in many areas. In 2019, the railway carried 32 million passengers; he expects to add 20 million runners of the interurban corridor expansion project.

Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a free market think tank, disagrees with this projection. “MThe biggest problem with this is the idea that there is a large unrealized demand for this type of train travel, ”he said. “I don’t think we have any evidence for that, and the cost of trying to stimulate it is very high. big.”

Position rail as a motor for equitable development

In Ohio, Amtrak is planning a new Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland road with connections to the national rail network at both ends. MORPC also argues for a new east-west route connecting Columbus to Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Columbus would need a new station, and Murdock says the developers are considering a downtown location near the convention center and hotels. Murdock calls this a “booming area” but admits that housing is scarce in the Short Nord and Arena districts adjacent to the planned station. “We don’t have enough housing to support our population growth at all income levels, so that’s something that really concerns us,” he said.

Alon Levy is a fellow of the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University, specializing in public transportation. He believes that office jobs “could fill a residential development near the station” in the city center, but he said that in Columbus, Cleveland and other Midwestern cities, single-family homes start a few blocks from the downtown area, limiting opportunities for business development.

Flynn of Amtrak said in a declaration that the proposed federal investment in Amtrak will create jobs and improve fairness across the country. a Study commissioned by Amtrak supports this assertion, concluding that the corridor plan would stimulate $ 195 billion in additional economic activity through capital investments from 2021 to 2035 and support more than 26,000 permanent jobs.

According to Amtrak 2021 corridor vision plan, “Geographic expansion to areas with large black, indigenous and colored (BIPOC) communities” will also help reduce racial and economic inequalities. In Ohio, Murdock said the planning commission was considering new stations in underserved areas, amplifying that with rapid bus transit and transit-centric housing.

Connecting urban and rural populations

Murdock added that rural Ohio communities are often the most enthusiastic about getting train service. “They see the economic possibilities of bringing a station to their city, making it more attractive,” he said.

Jim Mathews is president of the Rail Passengers Association (RPA), a pro-rail organization that predates Amtrak. As an example of the economic value that rail can bring to small communities, he cited Meridian, Mississippi, a city ​​of 36,000 who in 1997 built the Union Station Multimodal Transit Center on the site of a historic and largely demolished 1906 train station. According to Amtrak, the initial construction cost of nearly $ 7 million helped create $ 135 million in public and private investments in the Depots district.

Jarod Pearson, president of the Tennessee Association of Railroad Passengers Advocacy Group, Lives in Cowan, Tennessee, a community of just over 1,600 people. Although a rail freight line runs through his hometown, the nearest Amtrak station is in Atlanta, a three-hour drive away. That could change with the planned expansion of Amtrak, which would add train service from Atlanta to Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee, along this existing railway line. He hopes Cowan would be a stop along the way. “I would make trips to Chattanooga more frequently, “he said.” I wouldn’t hesitate to spend more time in the area if I can do it without the traffic worries, and that’s part of the job. attractiveness of passenger rail. ”

The train service would help the economy of the area and iimprove access to healthcare and employment, Pearson added. It makes rural areas more livable. “

Railway dams

The Amtrak Downeaster train at a station in Wells, Maine.

Dan Zukowski / Diving into smart cities

As city planners and passenger rail advocates demand more and better trains, there are roadblocks ahead even if the infrastructure bill is enacted.

Amtrak 21,400 miles of road of service, it has only 623 miles. It operates, maintains and ships an additional 229 miles, but other railways or government agencies own most of the rest. Freight railways are known to cause significant delays to passenger trains. Only one of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance trains achieved punctuality above 80% in 2020. Six did not achieve punctuality above 60%. The Limited sunset The train, which connects Los Angeles to New Orleans, arrived on time for just one in three trips in 2020.

Freight railways may resist the addition of more passenger trains or require Amtrak to make expensive upgrades to freight lines. In Maine, a siding along a track owned by Pan Am Railways had to be lengthened six miles to allow Amtrak to add a sixth daily round trip between Brunswick, Maine and Boston. Construction is now underway. On Amtrak’s Chicago-Milwaukee route, the Canadian Pacific Railway said it would not accept additional rail service after opponents in Glenview, Ill., opposed the construction of two sidings necessary for the railroad.

Poole pointed out that “there are policy implications that are not discussed in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. He explained that the US freight railways are optimized for efficiency. these freight rail lines, it will reduce the efficiency and profitability of freight transport by rail rather than by truck. ”

Beth Toll, spokesperson for Amtrak, said in an email that Amtrak has worked closely with the host railroads and has had “years of discussion” on many of the proposed new routes. Mathews of RPA is optimistic that these issues can be resolved as Amtrak moves forward with its expansion plans.

Murdock of MORPC noted that in Ohio, “TThe kind of investment you need to make to provide passenger rail service on these lines through Columbus would mean that we would also improve bottlenecks and freight speeds. “

For the record at least, there is an interest in no more rail service. According to Murdock, “Whether we’re talking about a big convention or a business or a youngster moving to Columbus, often one of the questions they ask is, ‘Where’s the train station? “”

America has a terrible history of prioritizing highways and driving over other modes of transportation, thereby destroying communities, ”Amtrak’s Toll said. “As a result, millions of people, including large populations of people of color, do not have access to reliable, fast and sustainable transportation options,” she said, adding that Amtrak wanted “s ‘tackle this disparity’.


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