Letter to House Democrats on GAO Surface Transportation Repor

August 8, 2008

The Honorable James Oberstar, Chairman
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
U.S. House of Representatives

The Honorable Charles B. Rangel, Chairman
Committee on Ways and Means
U.S. House of Representatives

The Honorable John M. Spratt, Jr., Chairman
Committee on the Budget
U.S. House of Representatives

The Honorable Peter A. DeFazio, Chairman
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
U.S. House of Representatives

The Honorable Earl Blumenauer
U.S. House of Representatives

RE:  Government Accountability Office report GAO-08-843R,
Surface Transportation Programs: Proposals Highlight Key Issues and Challenges in Restructuring the Programs

Dear Chairman/Representative __________:

The above-referenced report, which you along with several of your colleagues requested from the GAO, cries out for commentary on the need for greater focus on passenger (and freight) trains in transportation policy going forward. 

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission boldly suggested a truly balanced transportation policy and applied more than just “cost” as a measurement.  The Surface Commission has suggested a shift from the old way to a more modern transportation policy—one that other world leaders have already accomplished, and which includes investment in the energy and carbon efficient railroads as well as in highways and aviation.

The GAO’s response appears to be more in the nature of “bean counting” than transportation policy analysis that considers other policy outcomes.  For example, “train,” “railroad” and “passenger train” are words that do not appear on the page discussing “linking transportation policy and funding to environment and energy sectors.”

If our national objectives include significantly reducing our dependence on foreign oil and carbon emissions, and reducing congestion on highways and at airports, then our transportation decision-making processes need to be restructured in order to achieve those outcomes.  As things stand today we invest far too much in those modes of transportation that are least energy and carbon efficient and which do little to impact congestion.  Even in the face of strong ridership growth at Amtrak pushing up against that railroad’s capacity limits, federal policy has yet to change, and it remains unclear when funds will appear to enable significant expansion of the intercity passenger fleet. 

Noting the Commission’s sole recommendation for a mode-specific, federal program, that for “Intercity Passenger Rail,” GAO accuses the Commission of violating its own stated goal of breaking down “intermodal stovepipes.”

However, in our view, this Commission recommendation is an appropriate response to the chronic neglect of passenger trains reflected in federal policy and funding—neglect which has eroded the passenger train network for at least the past 50 years. 

Amtrak has consistently faced inadequate funding since it began operations May 1, 1971.  Indeed, as early as April 22, 1971, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) observed in a hearing, “I do get the distinct impression after sitting in on these hearings that frankly the corporation is grossly underfinanced.”

Today, federal policy is even less tenable: Amtrak is in its sixth straight year of ridership increases, with ridership up 14% in July and 11% in the first nine months of fiscal 2008 (October-June) compared with the same periods a year earlier.  Indeed, demand for train travel is pushing up against the limits of Amtrak’s fleet, which will take years to expand significantly once funding does become available.  The exception is a relative handful of out-of-service cars which could be repaired in short order (beyond five cars in Amtrak’s budget for this year and 12 for next year)—again, only if funding is provided.

Meanwhile, highway vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) are down.  According to a July 28 U.S. DOT release, the 3.7% drop in May VMT (vs. May, 2007) “is the largest drop in VMT for any May…the third-largest monthly drop in the 66 years such data have been recorded.  Three of the largest single-month declines - each topping 9 billion miles - have occurred since December.  [The May numbers marked] a decline of 29.8 billion miles traveled in the first five months of 2008 than the same period a year earlier.  This continues a seven-month trend that amounts to 40.5 billion fewer miles traveled between November 2007 and May 2008 than the same period a year before, she [Secretary Peters] said.”

We generally have not been impressed with the GAO’s handling of rail matters.  The starkest illustration of a blatant anti-Amtrak bias came during a June 9, 2005, hearing on Amtrak food service.  Our June 13, 2005, news release stated, in part, “JayEtta Hecker of the Government Accountability Office unfortunately created more heat than light, taking Amtrak to task for allegedly paying $3.93 a bottle for Heineken beer.  She said this even though Amtrak had told her beforehand that this figure was ‘a single data entry error that was corrected within 40 minutes….For over 200,000 bottles, Amtrak actually paid 83 cents a bottle.’”

Subcommittee Chairman Steve LaTourette (R-OH) called this an “attention grabber that I don’t think is fair. I can see the headline now: ‘Beer and Steaks Gone Amok’.”

At the hearing, Amtrak’s William Crosbie had significant disagreement with the GAO Report that appeared to have led to the hearing in the first place and said that, despite a four hour teleconference between Amtrak and the GAO, GAO did not correct several factual errors—many of which became headline grabbers.  Chairman LaTourette expressed displeasure with the fact that the GAO did not address Amtrak’s concerns, “In this era of 24 hour news, I’m concerned about the sound bite nature of (the accusations that Amtrak paid) $3.83 for a beer or $7.00 for a steak.”

It is a sad commentary on federal policy that we have let this kind of small-minded criticism stand in the way of meaningful reform; we do not appear to be any closer in moving the needle on increasing passenger train funding to allow expansion of service and the passenger car fleet.

The only way to truly attain intermodal neutrality is to recognize years of imbalanced governmental investment, and make future investment decisions accordingly.  We question the GAO’s analysis of this fundamental imbalance, and encourage you to take the steps requested by the Policy Commission’s study.

Thank you for considering our views.

Ross B. Capon
Executive Director