November 21, 2002
CHICAGO (Nov. 15)–Passenger-rail advocates, state transportation officials, rail suppliers, the UTU and even the freight railroad industry reached quick agreement here today on a four-point program to stabilize, strengthen and eventually expand the nation’s skeletal network of intercity passenger trains.
Meeting at the invitation of the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, the 37 conferees representing organizations from New England to Texas took only about three hours of discussion before hammering out the four principles they hope will soon be formalized in congressional legislation.
“We wanted to make sure that Congress is faced with a unified movement that agrees on a simple set of principles,” said Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition Executive Director Rick Harnish. “When any state government, or city, or interest group goes to their congressman and says, “Here’s what we want,” we want every congressman to hear the same message. When diverse interest groups coalesce around a uniform message, they gain credibility with legislators.”
After convening at 9 a.m. and breaking for lunch at noon, the group then came to agreement on the four essentials that must be in the next transportation funding bill:
1. A dedicated, multi-year capital-funding program for intercity passenger rail patterned after the existing federal highway, airport and mass-transit funding programs.
2. Creation or designation of a specific agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation devoted exclusively to overseeing the funding, management and policy development of a national passenger-rail system. This agency would function like the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which builds and maintains the nation’s inland waterways.
3. Preservation of the current nationwide interconnected passenger rail system and its improvement and expansion.
4. Full funding of Amtrak so that it can effectively manage, market and operate the national passenger rail system, and new policy oversight with new goals and incentives to more effectively define Amtrak’s mission and ensure higher levels of efficiency, innovation and responsiveness.
“I think this is the absolute minimum that every organization promoting passenger-rail development must embrace,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, who was asked by UTU International President Byron Boyd, Jr., to attend the conference and will submit his observations to Boyd for review.
“Obviously,” Szabo said, “each organization will have its own specific demands and agendas regarding passenger rail. Certainly our union does. Certainly the individual states do. But everyone in the room immediately agreed to set aside his or her pet projects and causes in order to develop a simple set of principles and objectives that all of us can support equally before Congress. Congress doesn’t like to sort out a lot of controversial issues from contending groups. It acts only when presented with a clear set of goals, and that’s what the Chicago meeting developed.”
In addition to Szabo, those present at the meeting included the passenger-rail officials of the state departments of transportation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota; Ross Capon, Executive Director of the Washington-based National Association of Railroad Passengers; Jim RePass, Executive Director of the Boston-based National Corridors Initiative; J. Anne Chettle, Manager of Congressional Affairs at the Association of American Railroads; former Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Donald M. Itzkoff; Kevin Brubaker, High Speed Rail Project Manager for the Environmental Law & Policy Center; Michael Moss, legislative assistant to Illinois Gov.-Elect Rod Blagojevich; Scott Bernstein, President of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago; and James E. Coston, a Chicago attorney and member of the Amtrak Reform Council. Amtrak Reform Council Chairman and former Federal Railroad Administrator Gilbert E. Carmichael participated by speakerphone.
“I believe we now have the basis for an effective passenger-rail funding package that we and our other allies can present to the next session of Congress,” Harnish said. “When rail advocates approach Congress, we will now be speaking with one voice. That has never happened before.”
Harnish said the conferees deliberately refrained from specifying a funding source in their four-point program because “that’s not our job.”
“Congress does not like outsiders telling it how to raise money for new initiatives,” he said. “Legislators prefer to be sold on a program. After they accept it as something the nation needs, they reserve to themselves the job of developing a funding mechanism.”
Szabo agreed, saying, “It’s O.K for rail advocates to debate how rail should be funded, and we do it all the time. Some people say add a penny to the federal motor-fuel tax and use that to fund rail. Some say use the 4.3-cents-a-gallon tax the railroads already pay on diesel fuel. Some say let intercity rail have a share of transit funding.
“But it’s not our role to tell Congress where to find the money,.” he said. “Congressmen like to do that themselves. What they expect us advocates to do is present a coherent and doable picture of what a modern U.S. passenger rail system ought to look like, and that’s what we advocates have done with the so-called ‘Chicago Agreement.’ I think we’re off to a good start.”