• Fri. Apr 23rd, 2021


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Biden, an Amtrak Evangelist, Could Be a Lifeline for a Rail Agency in Crisis

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden says he loves ice cream, aviators and Amtrak. But if elected president, his love for the rail agency may be put to the test.

Amtrak is facing a crisis. The coronavirus has led to scores of riders abandoning its trains, causing huge drops in revenue. The agency has cut back on service to America’s heartland. It has furloughed over 2,000 workers. If it does not get $2.8 billion in emergency funding by December, another 2,400 employees could lose their jobs, Amtrak officials warn. High profile projects across the country, including those in New York and New Jersey, are facing delays.

All the while, Congress has stalled on approving any further relief, despite bipartisan support for the rail agency.

But as Mr. Biden — a longtime Amtrak rider and perhaps its most famous advocate — rolls toward Election Day, rail supporters want to hear more from the Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president about what a potential Biden administration would do to solve it.

“The Amtrak that Joe Biden loves can be largely gone by Inauguration Day,” said John Robert Smith, a former board chairman of Amtrak. “The V.P.’s got to make a statement.”

When asked about Mr. Biden’s position on Amtrak’s personnel cuts or reduction in service, the Biden campaign could not provide specific details. But Matt Hill, a spokesman for the campaign, said that Mr. Biden had been “a loyal Amtrak rider and advocate for its workers throughout his entire career.”

“A President Biden will step up for Amtrak’s workers,” Mr. Hill said.

Amtrak is core to Mr. Biden’s personal and political identity. In 1972, one month before Mr. Biden was sworn in as a senator from Delaware, his first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash. He soon began a decades-long daily ritual of riding the train between Washington and Wilmington to fulfill a pledge to be home with his children every night, earning the moniker “Amtrak Joe.”

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As a senator, he was a staunch supporter of Amtrak funding. As a presidential candidate, he has relied on his love for the rail network to support his common man image with voters.

In 1987, Mr. Biden kicked off his first presidential bid from the back of an Amtrak train. Last month, the day after his first debate with President Trump, Mr. Biden chartered an Amtrak train to talk with voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania on his “Build Back Better Express” tour.

Current and retired Amtrak workers have said Mr. Biden’s connection with the train staff during his 30-plus years as a rider exemplifies his personality.

“Every cafe car attendant up and down that corridor knows him,” Gregg Weaver, a retired Amtrak conductor who worked on Mr. Biden’s train route, said in an interview. “He didn’t care whether you were carrying a briefcase or a lunch pail, he had time for you.”

Amtrak supporters recognize there is little a presidential candidate can do to bolster the rail agency, and that any financial lifeline for the network must come from the White House and Congress.

But they say the Biden campaign could pressure Amtrak’s leaders into doing what some lawmakers and rail advocates have been pressing the agency to do: lobby Congress for permission to use funds intended for capital projects to temporarily save jobs and maintain service.

Amtrak has nearly $3.3 billion available to use for capital projects, according to the agency’s August financial report. Rail experts indicate at least $1.4 billion of that money could be reconfigured to support worker salaries and rail operations with a congressional waiver.

Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

Amtrak has been loath to tap into those funds because leaders worry it would delay projects meant to increase the safety and reliability of the rail service. Amtrak currently spends $200 million to $250 million per month to sustain its operations, according to its chief executive William J. Flynn. In August, the rail agency brought in nearly $127 million in total revenue, according to an analysis of its financial reports.

Mr. Biden could draw a spotlight on Amtrak’s struggles, rail advocates say, by publicly encouraging the agency to reverse its furlough plans and restore daily service on its long distance routes, an essential transportation link and economic lifeline for rural communities.

“By talking now, Biden could lay the foundation to assure Amtrak the pressure will get more intense if Biden wins,” said Ross Capon, a transportation consultant and former executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden has not commented on Amtrak’s decision to cut jobs and reduce service.

But in September, he voiced his support for Amtrak’s 2,000 furloughed workers. “It’s safe to say I’ve gotten to know the hardworking men and woman of Amtrak over the years,” Mr. Biden said on Twitter. “I’m proud to stand with them as they face furloughs due to funding cuts.”

“It’s time we have their backs,” he added.

Mr. Flynn said in a statement that “delaying capital work” was “not an option,” and that repurposing capital funds for operating expenses would also result in job losses.

Part of Amtrak’s hesitation over tapping into its capital funds may be the uncertain political climate as the Nov. 3 election draws closer, rail experts said.

“There is a calculation to be made,” said Jim Mathews, the chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association. “A Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Senate would make it a lot easier to restore that capital funding.”

Amtrak supporters are also looking for more information from the Biden campaign about how the rail agency would fare under his potential presidency. Under Mr. Trump, Amtrak’s budget has repeatedly been on the chopping block but Congress has opted to largely maintain the agency’s funding. In February, the White House proposed cutting its budget by half.

Mr. Biden has said his administration would “spark the second great railroad revolution,” and that it would move to electrify Amtrak trains.

John D. Porcari, who served as President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of transportation and is a co-chair of the Biden campaign’s working group on infrastructure, told Politico this month that a Biden administration might aim to not only restore Amtrak but expand it, creating new 400-mile corridors that connect small and midsize cities where airlines provide limited service. Such an ambitious plan is similar to Amtrak’s own 2050 vision.

Congressional aides and rail advocates note that a plan to bolster Amtrak has already passed the House but lacks enough support in the Senate. The INVEST Act would increase investment in rail by $60 billion over five years, with nearly $29 billion specifically for Amtrak.

The legislation’s lead sponsor in the House, Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, is confident that if Mr. Biden is elected, he will work with Congress to provide Amtrak a robust future.

“Under a Biden administration, Amtrak’s short- and long-term needs will finally get the attention they deserve,” Mr. DeFazio said. “They don’t call him ‘Amtrak Joe’ for nothing.”