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Join America's Mayors in Asking Congress for Better Train Service!

May 16, 2014

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on May 15 exploring the impacts that transportation investment has on states, local communities, and users of the transportation system. Unsurprisingly, the mayors in attendance—the elected officials directly charged with meeting the transportation needs of average Americans—were direct and unequivocal in expressing the need for stronger public investment in passenger trains.

These local leaders are on the front lines of the battle to restore America’s infrastructure. They hear from business leaders that need an efficient transportation network to compete globally and to attract workers. And they hear from everyday people who rely on trains to get to work on time, and to get home in time to be with their loved ones. The mayors were clear: right now, Congress is letting both these groups down.

Join NARP in telling the Senate to fund the modern passenger train system Americans need!

Mayor David Martin of Stamford, Connecticut—hailing from the same state as Surface Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Richard Blumenthal—opened by detailing the looming investment needs of major metropolitan regions:

When rail service is effective, it provides economic benefits such as better accessibility to markets, employment, and increased investment. Businesses desire and depend on rail. In Stamford, for example, the commercial vacancy rate in buildings near the train station is about half that of the overall commercial vacancy rate in the city.

Stamford is home to four Fortune 500 Companies and is the largest financial district in the New York Metro Area outside of New York City. We are unique in that we not only have local residents depending on rail to commute to New York City, but have employees depending on rail to commute to Stamford.

In meeting with executives from these companies, they are universally concerned about the reliability and future of rail service. Unreliable service, frequent breakdowns, and other complications threaten their future growth and it affects Stamford’s ability to both attract and retain new businesses. It also affects the quality of life for residents, especially considering the fact that rail is the primary alternative to traveling on our roadways, which are among the most congested in the country.

The federal government can have an immediate impact and safeguard the long-term vitality of the Northeast by investing in our rail infrastructure. The scope of the investment necessary is more than any one city or state can provide.

The most successful countries in history have been defined by their ability to build, maintain, and grow their transportation networks.

The United States is no different. Our success and prosperity as a nation has been made possible in large part because of our commitment to our transportation networks.

John Robert Smith—currently the co-chair of Transportation For America, and formerly the mayor of Meridian, Mississippi—provided perspectives from small town America, equally reliant on efficient and frequent passenger train service. He called on Congress to maintain and expand the national passenger rail system with stable and dedicated funding:

Americans today are using intercity passenger rail in record numbers. For smaller communities no longer served by air or intercity bus, rail provides the critical connection to jobs, medical centers, and universities in larger metropolitan areas. The national rail system increases economic activity and supports economic development efforts in communities across the country. For example, three years after the Downeaster service from Boston to Portland started, researchers found more than $15 million in annual business sales in Maine and New Hampshire attributable to the rail service. A study of the Empire Builder’s impact on Montana found that direct spending in Montana by Amtrak and riders from out of state totaled between $5.3 million and $5.7 million annually, and that the benefits for Montana residents of using Amtrak intercity service (in terms of automobile costs avoided, lower accident probability, reduced highway maintenance, etc.) totaled at least $7.6 million annually.

Rail service is a key component of local communities’ ability to retain and attract residents and businesses – the foundation of their future economic success. Yet too many communities lack this service. The college town of Grinnell is located in a sparsely populated part of central Iowa. Grinnell is only 285 miles from Chicago, but is no longer served by passenger rail, which used to connect the two cities in only a few hours. According to Jim Reische, Vice President of Communications for Grinnell College, “Grinnell is having an increasingly hard time recruiting the world-class faculty, staff and students we need to sustain our reputation and support our community, because of the impression that we're geographically isolated.” Reische believes that restoring the rail connection to Chicago is necessary for “attracting people who have competing educational or employment options in locations they largely perceive as more desirable, typically because of easier access to metropolitan areas and the associated assumptions about diversity, cultural life, etc.”

Along the Gulf Coast, 22 mayors have joined together to support restoration of passenger rail service from New Orleans to Orlando. Service along the Gulf Coast was suspended after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has not been restarted, despite the fact that this corridor is experiencing rapid growth. It is the fourth largest aerospace corridor in the country, an industry that needs rapid, efficient transportation for its products and people. These mayors – who represent cities large and small along the Coast – are seeking the restoration of passenger rail service in order to allow their region to continue its strong economic growth without choking on highway and airport congestion.

While these examples focus on specific corridors, the value of our passenger rail system derives from the fact that it is a national system. As with any network, the more connections that are made, the larger and more valuable the network becomes. By expanding service to more communities, the economic benefits of the entire network can be increased. If any set of connections is eliminated, e.g., through reductions in service or degrading infrastructure, the value of the entire network is diminished. To ensure that our national passenger rail system achieves its maximum economic potential, we must not only improve and expand service to additional communities, we must also make the investments needed to ensure that the system is brought into a state of good repair.

The reauthorization of the rail program should maintain and expand the national intercity passenger rail system, provide increased, stable, and dedicated funding for passenger rail, and provide local communities with additional funding and financing tools to support station-area economic development efforts such as those in Meridian and Normal.

Emphasizing the job creation that goes hand-in-hand with infrastructure investment was Raymond Poupore, Executive Director of the National Infrastructure Alliance. The Alliance represents companies that build projects spanning all modes, including passenger rail projects of national significance such as the Sound Transit’s regional system in the Pacific Northwest, and the Dulles Light Rail line in Northern Virginia. Mr. Poupore warned that if Congress failed to act this summer, tens of thousands of American jobs would be lost:

Construction workers and members of the unions of the Alliance, in particular, pay their mortgages, buy their cars, and purchase their family health care through the paychecks they earn building all modes of surface transportation, and we appreciate you giving the National Infrastructure Alliance the opportunity to bring you an industry perspective on the critically important work you do to create jobs by investing in surface transportation.

To underscore just how important transportation investments are to the industry, please allow me to remind you of the employment numbers. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that over two-thirds of the direct jobs created by a transportation investment are in construction. About 10,000 direct construction jobs are created with every $1-billion invested in a highway project. While every project is different, particularly as we look across transportation modes, requiring varying levels of labor from the different crafts, the estimates are roughly consistent across modes. Your investments employ thousands of NIA members. There is nothing more important to the employment prospects of NIA members than a robust federal surface transportation bill.

NARP needs you to take action now to ask your Senators to support Amtrak and high performance rail with a $5 billion appropriation for this year, and provide a dedicated source of funding going forward! Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) will be particularly important in this process as heads of the Surface Transportation Subcommittee.