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Federal infrastructure package could deliver good things for local Amtrak service

It’s great that rail service will get a much-needed, $66 billion shot in the arm. But long-term, predictable funding is a must.

Amtrak’s Zephyr Train, Offering Spectacular Views Of American West, Under Threat
Amtrak is set to get a $66 billion boost under the federal infrastructure bill. That could mean improvements for Chicago service and downtown’s Union Station.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Joe Biden lived up to his “Amtrak Joe” nickname this week by signing into law the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill that includes a $66 billion set-aside for the traditionally underfunded national rail agency.

The share of money coming to Chicago and the Midwest — not yet revealed — should be sizable enough to bring about the major changes and improvements that Amtrak, particularly in our region, has needed for decades.

That means enough money to speed up service by separating more Amtrak lines from the tracks they share with freight rail; to create more high-speed routes and vastly improved Amtrak service between Chicago and other Midwest cities, and to repair and improve stations.

“It’s transformative,” as Amtrak Chief Executive Officer William J. Flynn, speaking about how the funding would impact the agency’s entire network, told The Washington Post this week.

Flynn said the $66 billion “represents more funds than have been cumulatively invested in Amtrak over the first 50 years of our history.”

That’s good news, at last, for historically cash-starved Amtrak. And it’s also good news, we hope, for the Chicago region, the nation’s rail hub.

But we also hope it means a lasting change in the way Washington, D.C., thinks about and funds Amtrak.

Keeping Chicago hard-wired by rail

Amtrak has not yet publicly identified specific Chicago-area projects that would potentially be funded with the infrastructure cash.

But generally speaking, the infrastructure funds will pay for new passenger equipment for both state-supported routes, which are subsidized by periodic payments to Amtrak from states themselves, and long-distance trains, which are subsidized with federal money. The infrastructure funds will also be used to bring stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The funding is also earmarked to improve infrastructure along the national routes that run through the region, and to bolster a program in which the Federal Railroad Administration works with state governments and Amtrak to develop new corridors.

None of that sounds sexy. But all of this work is needed to keep Chicago properly hard-wired by rail to the rest of the nation.

A hint of the sort of individual projects that could be done here lies on the East Coast and in the Northeast.

There, local and Amtrak officials earlier this week discussed large-scale plans for spending their infrastructure cash, including $8 billion toward creating a new Hudson River Tunnel in New York City. Plus, $30 billion would be spent to improve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — the agency’s busiest — which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

That kind of largesse would solve a lot of problems in Chicago. For one, what about replacing the dreary and dungeon-like Union Station concourse with one that matches the beauty and function of the station’s recently restored Great Hall? There’s also a need to improve the lines operating from the city to Joliet, St. Louis, even Minneapolis.

But ‘predictable funding’ is also needed

Transportation expert Joseph Szabo, who led the Federal Railroad Administration under President Barack Obama and was a executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said the funding would be an obvious “huge shot in the arm” for the projects Amtrak has already planned in the region.

“It not only allows Amtrak and the state . . . to invest in [clearing] a lot of backlog of repair projects but to start implementing the kind of visionary [planning] work that has been done,” he told us. That work includes the creation of new and improved routes in and out of Chicago.

That shot in the arm is good, no doubt. But we can’t help but wonder: What happens years from now when the money is spent — as it surely will be — and Amtrak advocate Biden is out of office?

Will the nation return to its ugly habit of underfunding this critical agency, something this country has done since Amtrak’s inception in 1971 — as any American who has traveled on the fast, modern train systems in Japan or Europe can attest.

“One of of the most important things that we have to achieve is predictable, dedicated funding, just like we do for every other transportation mode,” Szabo said. “You’ve got to be able to plan with a higher level of certainty.”

It’s great that Amtrak hit the lottery. Its winnings can bring about a host of improvements that will make Amtrak a more attractive option for travelers — a must for Amtrak to boost its ridership.

Those changes could be transformative. But Szabo is right: Long-term funding is critical. The true test will come a bit farther down the line.

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