On board with money and reforms
President Barack Obama made two campaign promises related to Amtrak: fight for funding and reform Amtrak to be more accountable.
In our last update, we established that the administration earmarked money for Amtrak in his economic stimulus package and in his budgets for 2010, 2011 and 2012. Obama also issued a statement in favor of the MAP-21 Act, a surface transportation bill that includes funding for rail. It passed the Senate in March and is now awaiting for a vote in the House. He also opposed a separate House bill that would have reduced Amtrak funding.
Obama didn't specify how he would reform Amtrak, but his promise did reference his co-sponsorship of a bill that became the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, the last major law to deal with Amtrak reform. In his promise, Obama also mentioned that he would work "to improve accountability.”
That 2008 passenger rail law included accountability measures for Amtrak under a "Performance Improvement Plan.” For instance, it directs Amtrak to evaluate and rank each of its long-distance routes, post improvement plans online for the worst routes, and then implement those plans in 2010.
We found that Amtrak published a chart ranking 15 long-distance routes based on customer satisfaction, on-time performance and cost recovery. It also published improvement plans for 10 of those routes.
The law had a separate provision for the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General to report to Congress on service delays and their causes for Amtrak's Coast Starlight and Cascades routes. The audit and its recommendations are online, in addition to an annual report on Amtrak's budget and five-year financial plan.
Last time we rated this promise In the Works because there was no evidence of reform efforts. With the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, the Obama administration has delivered on accountability reforms. We rate this a Promise Kept.
Interview with Robert Puentes, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program and director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, June 15, 2012
Interview with Jesse Prentice-Dunn, transportation analyst for the Sierra Club, June 19, 2012
Email interview with Meghan Keck, deputy director of public affairs at the Department of Transportation spokeswoman, June 19, 2012
Amtrak, Reports and Documents
Federal Railroad Administration, Overview, Highlights, and Summary of the
Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA), March 10, 2009
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Annual Report on Amtrak's Budget and 5-Year Financial Plan, March 28, 2012
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Audit Initiated of Amtrak's Performance Tracking (APT) System, March 22, 2012
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Audit Initiated of Service Disruptions and Delays on the Amtrak Cascades and Coast Starlight Routes, Oct. 9, 2008
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Amtrak Cascades and Coast Starlight Routes: Implementation of New Metrics and Standards is Key to Improving On-Time Performance, Sept. 23, 2010
Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the U.S. Government Fiscal Year 2013: U.S. Department of Transportation, Feb. 13, 2012
Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, Statement of Administrative Policy: S. 1813 – Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, Feb. 9, 2012
Administration spends stimulus money on Amtrak, but "reform" awaits
The Obama administration has stuck by its pledge to secure funding for Amtrak, although efforts to pursue "reform" — however that is defined — are not yet evident.
On March 13, 2009, Vice President Joe Biden announced that Amtrak will receive $1.3 billion in funding from the economic stimulus package. The funds are aimed at expanding passenger rail capacity. As of this writing, the Federal Railroad Administration says it has approved $1.1 billion for Amtrak projects under this program, with 73 projects under way.
"We are investing in jobs that will allow Amtrak to add and modernize cars and engines and upgrade its tracks," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on March 13. Stimulus funding will roughly double the size of Amtrak"s capital investment program over a two-year period, the department said. The projects range from replacement of a drawbridge on the northeast corridor route, repairs to Amtrak facilities, improvements to the electrification system on the northeast corridor, and the return to service of dozens of passenger cars (the first of which rolled off the line at Bear, Del., on July 13, 2009).
The funding from the stimulus comes on top of a subsidy increase provided under the president's proposed budget for fiscal year 2010. Amtrak had sought $1.84 billion from the federal government for fiscal 2010, but the president offered $1.5 billion. That's still better than the previous proposal by then-President George W. Bush, who proposed an $800 million cut.
This promise would have rated as a Promise Kept had we discovered any evidence of the administration pursuing reforms of Amtrak. A reauthorization bill enacted last fall under George W. Bush's administration included provisions for Amtrak reforms, and experts suggested that new reform proposals by the Obama administration could wait until the next reauthorization bill. Until such efforts materialize, we'll call this promise In the Works.
Transportation Department, "Vice President Biden, Railroad Administrator, Members of Congress Announce Funding for Amtrak in Recovery Act"
, March 13, 2009
Associated Press, " Amtrak unveils first rail car funded by stimulus ," July 13, 2009
Bloomberg News, " Amtrak, Aviation Funding Increase Under Obama 2010 Budget Plan ," May 7, 2009
E-mail interviews with Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair, September 2009
E-mail interview with Brookings Institution transportation expert Robert Puentes, Sept. 4, 2009