Amtrak is improving, and we should keep that going by investing in it. Congress has made reforms to the nationís national passenger rail line, and a record 26 million passengers rode the rails this year. Ticket revenues have increased by 11 percent, and the nationís first high-speed rail corridorís popularity is growing thanks to on-time performance pushing 90 percent.
With all trends going upward, we should not scrap Amtrak, but keep up the investments to improve it even more. Thatís why I helped lead bipartisan passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act in the Senate this past week. My bill puts more than $11 billion into Amtrak over the next six years. As important, the bill initiates more reforms to cut costs and reduce Amtrakís government subsidy 40 percent by 2012.
Amtrak still has a long way to go. It has vocal detractors Ė folks who want to scrap Amtrak because it doesnít make a profit. As a conservative, free-market capitalist, I understand those concerns, but government public service entities donít make profits. Providing transportation infrastructure is a basic function of government. The federal government has never built roads, runways or ports to make a profit, but to serve commerce, ensuring our economy has the benefit of all transportation options to remain dynamic.
Even though Amtrak is a public service, it must run more like a business, a major aim of my bill. In fact, the bill will increase the U.S. Department of Transportationís oversight of Amtrak, making all Amtrakís books more transparent. It requires DOTís Inspector General to annually report to Congress on Amtrakís financial health, and it requires Amtrak to submit a five-year plan, similar to those of private companies.
Most significant is that, for the first time in history, we have Amtrak legislation allowing states and private companies to invest in passenger rail and to work with Amtrak. It even permits states to contract with private companies and bid on the operation of some Amtrak routes.
If a state seeks passenger rail service between two local cities, it can draw from $300 million in federal grants and incentives provided in this bill to accomplish that project. It can build infrastructure specifically designed to support passenger rail service through Amtrak or an interested private company. This provision puts passenger rail on a similar footing with highways and airports, which receive federal assistance for infrastructure.
This partnership already is paying off. Between Chicago and St. Louis, where Illinois doubled its contract with Amtrak and made improvements to support it, service between the two cities has increased 42 percent.
As Mississippians know, Iíve always insisted that if taxpayers nationwide are to pay for a national passenger rail system, it must be just that Ė truly national. Mississippians and folks in other rural states wonít pay for a service thatís available only in big metropolitan areas. With the incentives for state and local investment, this bill will give Amtrakís long-distance routes a better chance at long-term survival.
Our state has a history of supporting th Amtrak routes serving Mississippi. Mississippians have been at the forefront in launching reforms leading to Amtrakís improvement. My legislation gives Amtrak the flexibility to meet market needs. Amtrak is still a public service, but itís no longer just tied to taxpayer money. Those who have an interest in passenger rail can help shape its future.
With the challenges before America on the energy front, and with the highways and airports becoming more congested, itís clear we should retain a national passenger rail service. Investing in and improving passenger rail is smart. It may not make a profit tomorrow, but it will pay off in the long run.
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column.
Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (Attn: Press Office) or Email