The Avenue

Expand State Partnerships for Passenger Rail

Robert Puentes and Joseph Kane

As passenger rail ridership grows nationwide, Amtrak and some states are engaging in innovative new partnerships to foster this demand. To comply with the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) that passed in 2008, federal and state policymakers will not only need to focus on the financial and operational performance of short-distance routes, where over 80 percent of the system’s ridership occurs, but also on the future of long-distance routes.

Of course, more federal support would help. But with additional federal funding unlikely and state budgets significantly pared, policymakers will need to consider more sustainable ways to finance the nation’s increasingly intermodal transportation network.  Passenger rail, in particular, has shown the importance of states stepping up and taking action.

And several states have already seized the opportunity. Before PRIIA passed, 15 states paid at least a portion of the operating expenses for 21 different routes, affirming their commitment to passenger rail and placing them in a better position to target future spending. Oklahoma and Texas, for example, have jointly financed the Heartland Flyer and contributed more than $17 million combined from 2007 to 2011. Collectively, the 15 states have allocated almost $850 million during the same span.

Some states have also invested in rolling stock and other capital improvements that have furthered economic development along different corridors. North Carolina, for instance, has actively supported the Carolinian and Piedmont by rehabilitating stations and upgrading state-owned tracks. California has continued to invest in the Pacific Surfliner, the Capitol Corridor, and the San Joaquin, all of which rank among the 10 busiest routes nationally. 

By prioritizing passenger rail, states are investing in a mode that has appealed to more travelers and strengthened the economic linkages between metro areas. But as states assume greater responsibility for passenger rail, they should be given greater flexibility in how they manage routes.  While a dedicated source of funding, such as a ticket tax, would certainly help, states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) could also benefit from having the ability to transfer federal funds to support intercity passenger rail, as they currently can between highway and transit programs.

Still, even with this flexibility, Amtrak and the states will need to address both short-distance and long-distance routes. Although PRIIA requires states to operationally support short-distance routes only, long-distance routes should not be exempt from this requirement. Amtrak and the states need to carefully weigh the benefits—geographically and otherwise—that these routes provide relative to their high operating costs.

The goal here is not to eliminate these routes but to strengthen the federal-state partnership. Expanding PRIIA in this way should be seen as an opportunity to innovate and collaborate, allowing Amtrak and the states to shape the future of passenger rail in response to local demands and a clear national plan. If states feel that certain long-distance routes are not worth supporting, then they should be scaled back, as has already been debated for routes such as the Pennsylvanian. If anything, though, states should feel confident and emboldened in this task based on their ability to coordinate other cross-border infrastructure investments. States should lead with greater decisiveness and action.

Indeed, supporting passenger rail comes down to a simple choice for federal and state policymakers: In the long run, is it wiser to invest $6 million to construct one mile of a new 4-lane highway, or to spend that same $6 million to cover the operating expenses for a passenger rail route spanning 300 miles?