Amtrak Bridge

In last Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer there was an article on the sad shape of Amtrak’s infrastructure in and around Philadelphia.  As a particularly disturbing example of disrepair, the article first focused on the 108-year old 52nd street bridge, which carries both Amtrak and SEPTA traffic.  According to the Inquirer the bridge is in such sad shape that piers are cracked, holes are visible in the deck, and trees are growing through it.

Amtrak is of course is not entirely to blame for the sad state of its infrastructure.  The organization was set up doomed to fail as it inherited all its infrastructure from various private railroads who were desperate to get out of the non-profitable passenger business.  So goodness knows what condition the bridge was in in 1971 when Amtrak was first created and first underfunded.  That underfunding has led to the following infrastructure crisis:

Nearly half of Amtrak’s 302 bridges in the Philadelphia region have some elements rated “poor” or worse, according to Amtrak’s bridge-inspection reports, prepared over the last two years. The Inquirer obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspections show that 143 bridges – 47.4 percent – received “poor” or lower marks for such defects as deteriorated metal plates or decaying stone walls. Some have eroded support piers, others badly worn girder elements and missing rivets. (The count does not include marks for painting or signs, which would push the number of “poor” structures even higher.) None of the bridges had any “failed” marks.

Amtrak officials say the bridges remain safe for travel. But decades of deferred maintenance mean the aging bridges will require hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them into good repair.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the country, where Amtrak owns about 1,400 bridges, largely in the Northeast. Lacking money to meet all of its repair and maintenance needs, Amtrak has deferred an estimated $5 billion in capital and infrastructure maintenance spending.

And regarding the need for repairs in Philadelphia and when they might occur:

As bridge elements deteriorate, they can cause the rails to bend or shift, making trains slow down or even derail.

Amtrak’s Yordy, standing under the 52d Street bridges, said that even with its litany of problems, the structure “is still serviceable.” But he noted that its age was catching up with it.

“One-hundred-year-old bridges should be considered for replacement,” he said, noting the corrosion and the possibility of steel fatigue.

As Yordy and Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black examined the structure recently, a pedestrian chastised them: “Why don’t you paint it so it looks like something?”

Black looked at the rusting bridges overhead and acknowledged, “These are ugly, just as that guy said. But they are safe. They may need some remedial work. But one bad member won’t bring them down.”

With more bridges than money, Amtrak has a challenge to determine which repairs can afford to wait and which must be made now.

Amtrak alwyas has had funding problems since its inception and that is not likely to change dramatically, even with Obama and Lahood allocating funds for rails at historic rates.  Amtrak has been so neglected for nearly four decades, and the rails it runs on for decades before that, that no one time boost is going to solve its infrastructure woes.

This is why Amtrak needs a railroad trust fund that is similar to the highway trust fund.  The highway trust fund provides resources for maintenance for the Interstate Highway System via fuel taxes.  A railroad trust fund could similarly provide for funding through taxes and an initial grant by the federal government.  It is insane to tax Amtrak riders or public transportation users.  However, perhaps each Amtrak rider could be charged an extra $1 that goes to the trust fund.

Moreover, given that drivers do not currently pay the fuel tax that provides for the highway trust fund, the oil that is essentially already taxed to be used by railroads should be provided to the railroad trust fund.  Rather than providing oil revenues used by railroads to highway improvements, such money should be directed to rail maintenance. Also, since many rails run on electricity, including Amtrak, perhaps there should be a small electricity tax.

These are partial solutions at best, but at least a start.

UPDATE: Apparently, I was not the first to come up with this idea and have been done one better with the notion of a national infrastructure bank.  Such a fund would allocate money to any mode of transit and be done so wisely, especially as the highway trust fund no longer pays for itself with low gas taxes.

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