Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

Testimony Before The
Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
March 13, 1997

Thank you Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to be here today.

I don't envy you the tough job you are taking on here -- reauthorizing the landmark ISTEA legislation. This is an important opportunity to carry forward and perfect the historic innovations in that landmark bill.

I am here today because I am convinced that one of the ways we can build and improve on the original ISTEA is to improve the way it treats passenger rail as part of our country's transportation system.

The original ISTEA legislation was revolutionary in the way it improved the coordination among the many different modes of transportation our country depends on. It recognized that our national highway system -- the envy of the rest of the world, and the greatest public works project of all time -- was not the only way to move people and products.

The original ISTEA was remarkable for its emphasis on balance, on the use of the full range of transportation modes -- each at it most appropriate scale and most appropriate function. To build on the accomplishments of that legislation, we should recognize our country's continuing need for a viable national passenger rail system.

A few statistics will help to make this point.

Despite being the orphan child in our nation's transportation funding, Amtrak carries 55 million passengers a year, connecting 68 of the 75 biggest cities in the country. And, to remind some of my colleagues from more rural states, fully forty percent of its annual passengers ride Amtrak to and from rural locations and our nation's cities.

Along the northeast corridor, Amtrak carries more passengers between New York and Washington, D.C. than all the airlines combined. That's the equivalent of 7,500 fully loaded 757's or 10,000 DC-9's. Without Amtrak, there would be an additional 27,000 cars on the highway between New York and Boston every day. Between New York and Philadelphia, there would be an additional 18,000 cars a day.

I don't have to elaborate for this committee what that would mean in terms of construction and maintenance of more highway lanes, time lost in congestion, additional airport construction costs and delays, health costs from air pollution -- all costs that we do not have to pay now because Amtrak is filling that gap.

And Amtrak is performing these tasks under the most restrictive financial conditions. Both the administration and the Congress now assume in their budgets that Amtrak will receive no further federal operating assistance after the year 2002. I am not convinced that this is the best course, but it is the one we are now committed to.

To move toward that goal, Amtrak has laid off 3,500 workers, and cut 15 percent of its service. in just the last two years, these moves have saved $364 million a year. I don't need to add that these moves, while they are real accomplishments, also threaten to reduce the availability and efficiency of Amtrak service.

There are real limits on how much further the system can go.

Under these circumstances, it is essential that Amtrak be provided -- in the ISTEA legislation that you are considering here today -- with the means to reach that goal.

I am here today, along with my o~ther colleagues, to urge you to include two provisions in the next ISTEA -- authorization for a dedicated capital fund, and flexibility for states to use federal transportation funds for intercity passenger rail, if they choose.

I am a cosponsor of the proposal made by the distinguished Chairman and ranking member of the Finance committee to use a half-cent of the existing federal fuels tax to create a capital fund for Amtrak. This proposal would not cost the treasury a dime -- it comes from an existing revenue source. It could mean a total of $3.8 billion for Amtrak over the next five years, the years in which it must move to operating self- sufficiency.

A capital fund would allow Amtrak to upgrade facilities, purchase new equipment, and engage in the prudent long-term financing that other businesses can use. This would not only improve Amtrak's finances -- it will help them attract the riders, to sell the tickets, that will permit them become self-sufficient -- to meet the goals that we have set for them.

Fully funded, the high-speed rail program for the northeast corridor will generate the income Amtrak needs to maintain and even expand its national passenger rail system. That will be a prudent investment, with substantial returns for our country's transportation system.

Virtually every other advanced industrial economy around the world is making this kind of investment. They are providing their citizens with not just another important option transportation option -- they are creating passenger rail equipment industries, industries that take advantage of the latest developments in materials and other technologies to build the new high-speed rail systems.

We could have those industries -- and those jobs, and the new products and processes they will spin off -- if we make the same kind of sensible investment in passenger rail by establishing a capital fund.

The other provision that I urge you to adopt as part of the reauthorization of ISTEA that you are considering is state flexibility to support passenger rail. I think we all know that passenger rail is uniquely and unfairly disadvantaged when it comes to the flexibility that was built into the original ISTEA legislation. That flexibility was central to the common-sense, local-option approach that made that first legislation such a success.

Right now, snowmobile trails, hike-and-bike paths, HOV lanes, transportation research, and lots of other components of our country's complex transportation system are eligible for federal matching funds if states elect to use them for those purposes. This is a great idea, and an appropriate application of the principles of financial flexibility and local control.

The problem is that passenger rail is the only application that is currently left off that long list of eligible uses for various kinds of federal transportation funds. That is an unfortunate accident of history - - and one that should be corrected this time around.

During the last session of Congress, I offered an amendment to correct that inequity with my colleague from Delaware, the distinguished Chairman of the Finance Committee. We got the support of 64 senators, but the amendment was dropped in conference with the House.

I am asking today that you include that kind of flexibility in the ISTEA reauthorization you are now considering. That would certainly be in keeping with one of the most important principles that we have heard a lot about in Congress lately -- devolution of responsibility and choices to the levels of government that are closer to the people.

Now, I think there are real limits to that idea -- I think there are areas where national standards and national responsibilities are essential -- but this is one area where it makes a lot of sense.

This kind of state flexibility is consistent with the principles embodied in the original legislation, and consistent with the principles of local control and responsibility.

In conclusion, Amtrak is an important, even indispensable part of our country's transportation system. And we here in Washington have decided to put it on a path to self-sufficiency in the next five years -- quite literally, we have given it a "drop dead" date, if it does not find a way to become self-sufficient.

As Mr. Downs will tell you this morning, Amtrak has done its part. Job cuts, route reductions, and other sacrifices have cut its operating losses. Lots of states, including my own, have felt the impact of those cuts.

Now it is time for us to do our part, to provide Amtrak with the capital funds, and the support of those states that choose to support passenger rail.

Thank you for allowing me to participate here this morning.