• Tue. Apr 13th, 2021

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Amtrak Wants to Expand Across the Nation. Local Politics Might Intervene.

Jim Mathews, the president of the Rail Passengers Association, a rail advocacy group, said that it was not uncommon for communities to see the debate fracture into an argument over whether local funds should go toward subsidizing rail travel for the wealthy, and something Amtrak might see crop up in future expansion efforts.

“They will deploy the old arguments because they do resonate,” Mr. Mathews said, adding that Amtrak must shift the conversation toward the economic benefits of expanding rail service because “as long as the conversation continues to be ‘why are we subsidizing land cruises for old people?’ you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Economic studies have been commissioned to show the benefits passenger rail service bring to a community. In Alabama, a study by the University of Southern Mississippi showed that connecting Mobile to New Orleans could provide $11 million to $220 million a year in benefit to the state’s economy, with much of the variation depending on tourism growth. Nationwide, the Rail Passengers Association predicts Amtrak’s services create $7 billion to $8 billion in annual economic benefit.

John Robert Smith, a former board chairman of Amtrak, said that negotiating with freight rail companies could also delay Amtrak’s expansion plans. Freight companies own a majority of the United States’ railroad tracks, but federal law requires them to give Amtrak access and preference for use.

Historically, this arrangement has caused tension, Mr. Smith said. Amtrak has often argued with freight rail companies over terms the companies have proposed to mitigate any financial or operational impact that comes with sharing the tracks, he said. In Mobile, local officials made city funding for Amtrak expansion contingent on, among others, a study showing that the port of Mobile would not be negatively affected by Amtrak expansion. Freight rail corporations like CSX disagreed with previous iterations of the study, and pressed for new analysis.

“If we don’t resolve the issue between passenger rail and the freights, all of the rest of what we’ve talked about is happy talk,” Mr. Smith, who is now chairman of Transportation for America, an advocacy group, said, referring to the bipartisan support surrounding railway expansion efforts.

Ross Capon, a former president of the Rail Passengers Association, said that in the past, airlines had been opposed to passenger rail expansion. He said that over two decades ago, Southwest Airlines killed a high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.