The federal transportation bill is up for reauthorization in 2009. This time the bill is likely to undergo major revision because the funding source for highways and transit -- the federal gasoline tax -- is not generating enough money to keep up with the escalating costs of maintaining highways and transit networks. Change is coming.
Intercity passenger rail, however, is not now part of the debate on the federal transportation bill.
That's an opportunity to strengthen both commuter rail and intercity rail, because investments in rail infrastructure often benefit both the commuter rail agency and Amtrak.
Take, for example, the stretch of track between Chicago's Union Station and Joliet Union Station. Metra's Heritage Corridor runs on this track (with stops in Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport). Amtrak's Chicago-Bloomington-Normal-Springfield-St. Louis and points beyond (the Texas Eagle and Missouri service to Kansas City) also runs on that track.
And the track needs a lot of work.
We need a few bridges so that intersecting tracks can flow freely. We need tracks and signal systems that allow safe travel at 70 mph as soon as the train leaves the station. And we need safer intersections so that trains don't need to blow their horns all the time.
Investments in that track will benefit both Metra and Amtrak.
We need to build that political coalition around the track infrastructure investments that benefit more than one agency and thus more than one pool of riders and supporters.
That should be a priority for federal investment, because then we get at two-fer.
I think that, at a start, the National Association of Railroad Passengers and the American Public Transportation Association should identify all track investment projects that benefit both intercity and commuter rail. This list of projects should be compiled and presented to the electorate, ideally before the 2008 election, so the presidential and congressional candidates can decide whether funding those projects in total is a priority in 2009.
I'm sure there are other groups that should participate in developing the list of projects that benefit more than one rail service (I just happen to be a member of both of those organizations). The agencies themselves, including Amtrak, should develop the information and the state and federal legislators that are trying to build support for rail investment should be aware of this potential package of investments and help shape it.
Passenger rail -- both intercity and commuter -- will be stronger when we work and advocate together.
[cross-posted at Improving Amtrak Incrementally]