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Rail a viable option

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By Michael C. Alexander
Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
 

In his op-ed interview with Eric Heyl (“Bold moves for transportation?,” Dec. 9 and TribLIVE.com), Ronald Utt commits many factual errors as he ridicules high-speed rail and Amtrak.

High-speed rail (HSR) is dead. Michigan and Illinois recently inaugurated the first sections of HSR on their Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-St. Louis runs, respectively.

California HSR is not making progress. California has made a commitment to HSR. The voters and officials elected by the voters — the legislators and governor of California — have approved funding for an HSR line between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Major public works projects like this typically obtain funding as they progress; our interstate highway program is a major example.

Obama does not talk about HSR anymore because nobody supported it. On Dec. 6, President Obama's secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, expressed his continued commitment to HSR at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Under the Obama administration 500 applications for rail projects have been made to the Department of Transportation, from which 152 in 32 states were selected.

The problem with Amtrak is that there are not enough passengers to fill the seats. In fact, Amtrak ridership has grown 44 percent since 2000. Amtrak trains are often sold out. Here in Pennsylvania, the one and only train that crosses the state has shown a 2.2 percent increase in ridership this past year. The Keystone Service, with 14 trains a day between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, has doubled ridership since 2000.

Amtrak keeps running because some people think trains are neat. In the Northeast Corridor it has become the dominant form of intercity transportation. In the Northeast Corridor last year 11.4 million passengers rode Amtrak because it offers them the best travel option, not because they are rail fans. In spite of naysayers like Mr. Utt, Congress has continued to support Amtrak because it provides service to more than 500 destinations in 46 states, three Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia for less than $1.5 billion a year in federal tax dollars.

High-speed rail is necessary in the United States because we already have several dense population corridors — not just in the Northeast, but also in the Midwest, South, and West, where California's population is expected to grow to 51 million by 2050.

The problem with Amtrak is that, because it is undercapitalized, it operates too few trains. Pittsburgh has only one train a day to Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York City, and our only train to Chicago and Washington, D.C., stops here at midnight westbound and at 4:50 a.m. eastbound. Amtrak passengers are already paying 79 percent of Amtrak's operating costs; adding trains to once-a-day routes like Pittsburgh-New York City and D.C.-Pittsburgh-Chicago would more effectively use existing infrastructure and station staff.

We Americans used to be known for our “can-do” spirit. Ronald Utt typifies the “can't-do” mentality that impedes serious debate on real issues. Our nation can provide transportation choices to its citizens, and one option we will increasingly turn to will be rail.

Michael C. Alexander, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail and a member of the Keystone Association of Railroad Passengers and the Council of Representatives of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, lives in Squirrel Hill.

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