The deterioration of Penn Station’s infrastructure that resulted in Long Island Rail Road commuters’ “summer of hell” was caused by decades of underinvestment in Amtrak by the federal government and the railroads that use its tracks, including the LIRR, transportation experts said.
“It’s always been on Amtrak’s nickel to get this work done,” Amtrak president and CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman said in an interview Friday. “And that’s been in an era when Amtrak — and everyone was aware of this — was not really receiving adequate funding to do it.”
The repairs at Penn — the busiest railroad station in the United States, used by more than 600,000 travelers daily — follow a series of infrastructure failures there, including three train derailments since April.
State lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have blamed Amtrak for the frequency of service disruptions at Penn, owned and maintained by Amtrak, including those forced by the summer repairs.
But Amtrak leaders have said, and independent transportation experts agree, that they are not solely to blame for the condition of the rail hub, which, like the rest of Amtrak’s system, relies heavily on meager and inconsistent subsidies from the federal government and from other railroads that are supposed to pay to use Amtrak’s infrastructure.
“I hate for commuters in the New York Metropolitan region to suffer more than they absolutely need to, but, at the same time, I’m almost glad that the MTA has been having a meltdown,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of policy for the National Association of Rail Passengers, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for Amtrak customers. “It really clarifies that the root of the problems isn’t managerial incompetence. It’s the way we pay for physical infrastructure. Or, to be more accurate, the way we do not pay for it.”
For the past decade, the federal government’s annual appropriation for Amtrak — meant to cover both operating and capital expenses — has averaged around $1.4 billion. Amtrak last year reported its total fiscal year revenue at $3.2 billion, including $2.1 billion from tickets — a ridership record. The revenue was not enough to cover the annual operating expenses for Amtrak, which reported a $227 million loss in 2016.
The Northeast Corridor Commission, made up of various transportation and public officials, estimated in May that Amtrak would need $38 billion just to get its infrastructure throughout the corridor, which spans from Washington to Boston, in a “state of good repair.”
Trump budget deepens hole
While Amtrak and its advocates have pushed for funding reform — chiefly a dedicated revenue stream and predictable long-term infrastructure funding plan, similar to the MTA’s five-year capital budgets — the Trump administration’s proposed transportation budget would push Amtrak deeper into a fiscal hole.
The budget looks to cut the federal subsidy to Amtrak nearly in half by eliminating funding for long-distance routes, which President Donald Trump’s proposal said “do not serve a vital transportation purpose,” and by eliminating the New Starts grant program that could be key to kick-starting the Gateway project.
“The President’s Budget focuses federal investment on vital safety oversight and targeted priorities that increase our long-term economic competitiveness,” a U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman said in a statement Friday. “While Congress considers the Administration’s budget proposal, FRA will work with Amtrak to identify ways to drive improvements in the cost-effectiveness of the long distance business line.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a Trump supporter, in a statement called it “rich” that the president’s proposed budget could be blamed “for many of the long-running issues we’ve been experiencing at and around Penn Station for years.”
Beyond that, he said, Trump’s budget is “hypothetical” and a Republican House transportation bill would keep existing Amtrak funding levels and preserve the New Starts grant program. He also defended the president’s call to ax long-distance routes and focus on the Northeast.
“This will allow us to keep the money in the region to repair New York-area rail infrastructure and Penn Station,” Zeldin said. “Leading up to this whole ‘summer of hell’ process, many have been pointing fingers, instead of taking proactive steps to address the safety and service issues impacting commuters and visitors who come in and out of Penn Station.”
Amtrak has disputed that reasoning, noting that axing long-distance routes would eliminate all their revenue, but not all their costs, and Amtrak would have to use money earmarked for Northeast upgrades to make up the difference.
Amtrak has found some powerful advocates in Washington from both parties. U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations, has vowed to commit $900 million in federal funds to launch Amtrak’s Gateway program, which would construct a new Hudson River tunnel to Penn Station. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) helped secure more than $400 million in federal grant funding to repair superstorm Sandy damage in the East River tunnels linked to Penn Station and primarily used by the LIRR.
“For far too long, Amtrak has been tremendously underfunded . . . No matter how hard Amtrak, or other rail systems, work to prioritize projects lack of adequate funding means some improvements are just not getting done,” Schumer said in a statement. “When you delay maintenance, it only leads to disaster.”
But it’s not only the White House that has proposed pulling resources from Amtrak.
Cuomo and MTA leaders have both threatened to withhold funding for Amtrak, including for the LIRR’s leasing of space at Penn and its use of Penn’s tracks, which totals about $46 million a year. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also threatened to hold back Amtrak subsidies.
Moorman, the Amtrak president, has said such moves would only lessen the agency’s ability to invest in Penn upgrades.
“The heart of the matter is that there needs to be more investment, not less,” he said.
Moorman has also suggested that, as it is, the MTA and NJ Transit have historically not paid their fair share at the station, where Amtrak runs the fewest trains but covers nearly 70 percent of its capital costs. The LIRR, which runs nearly half the trains at Penn, covers about a quarter of those costs.
There is hope of correcting those inequities, as a federal law passed in 2010, and being finalized now, establishes formulas for states to contribute to Amtrak’s infrastructure costs based on their usage of tracks. Moorman said the extra revenue that will come from the plan will allow the agency to better keep up with regular track maintenance, including at Penn.
During a news conference Thursday, MTA chairman Joseph Lhota maintained that the agency has fulfilled its payment obligations to Amtrak.
“We’ve honored every agreement that we’ve had with Amtrak. We have funded everything that’s according to the law. The idea that we have underfunded — we have given exactly what we are required to give,” said Lhota, who has put the blame for the summer disruptions at Penn squarely on Amtrak. “We don’t own Penn Station. We don’t. The owner is ultimately responsible.”
MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool, who also works as executive director of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said that rather than picking a fight with its fellow transportation provider, the MTA and Cuomo should advocate on Amtrak’s behalf, including by pushing for emergency financial assistance from the federal government for the summer repairs at Penn, which Amtrak has said will cost between $30 million and $40 million.
“While I think that Amtrak has certainly failed its customers in many ways, they have been failed by Congress for a very, very long time,” Vanterpool said.
With Vincent Barone
Amtrak’s financial woes: By the numbers
n Estimated cost of Penn Station summer infrastructure renewal work: $30-$40 million
n 2017 Amtrak federal appropriation: $1.495 billion
n Ten-year average Amtrak federal appropriation (2008-2017): $1.42 billion
n Estimated cost of bringing the Northeast Corridor, which includes Penn Station, into a “state of good repair”: $38 billion
n MTA’s annual subsidies to Amtrak for use of Penn Station: $46 million
n Percentage of Penn Station capital costs covered by MTA since 2008: 26 percent
n Percentage of trains at Penn Station operated by the MTA: 44.6 percent
n Percentage of Penn Station capital costs covered by Amtrak since 2008: 69 percent
n Percentage of trains at Penn Station operated by Amtrak: 20.5 percent
— Sources: Amtrak, Northeast Corridor Commission