Donald Fry: The cost of deteriorating rail infrastructure

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By: Donald C. Fry 

When you have a rail transportation system that relies on bridges and tunnels that are more than a century old, problems tend to arise.

When that transportation system is the 427-mile Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. – the nation’s busiest rail corridor serving Amtrak, eight rail commuter operators, 2,200 daily trains, 260 million passengers yearly and four freight railroads – such problems have a costly economic impact.

Shutting down the Northeast corridor for a single day could cost the nation nearly $100 million in transportation-related impacts and productivity losses, according to a report issued last month by the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Advisory Commission.

A shutdown of the entire corridor would be an extreme situation. But large-scale disruptions on the corridor are becoming “all too common,” the report warns.   

Meanwhile, funding for infrastructure has been difficult to come by. During the past several decades, the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which also carries more than a million passengers per year to and from Baltimore’s Penn Station, “has been characterized by a lack of sustained investment” to keep its rail infrastructure in a state of good repair, according to the report.

To reverse the decay of Northeast Corridor infrastructure and support other intercity passenger rail projects, Amtrak is asking Congress and the nation’s railroad officials to prevent the system from falling apart by approving a new federal policy and funding arrangement that creates a significant and reliable multi-year capital investment program.

Several disruptions in the past few years have demonstrated how vulnerable parts of the system can be to outages resulting from deferred maintenance or lack of redundancy and resiliency to recover from major weather events such as Superstorm Sandy in 2012, according to the NEC commission. 

For example, a power failure along the New Haven Line in September 2013 cut most service between New York and Connecticut for 12 days. In October 2013, Amtrak service between New York City and Boston was halted when the Pelham Bay Bridge became lodged in the open position.

If the NEC were shut down for a significant period of time, “it would be Armageddon, it would be devastating. When we had the earthquake we had New York clients here and they couldn’t get out of town for a day,” Paul Tiburzi, managing partner of DLA Piper’s Baltimore office, was quoted as saying in the report. “It is the lifeblood from D.C. to Boston.”

If the northeast rail corridor is to be able to accommodate its projected population growth of 15 million residents by 2050, significant investment is needed to improve its rail infrastructure beyond simply maintaining it, notes the NEC commission report.

Yet a backlog of necessary repairs on the rail corridor’s aging infrastructure continues to grow over the last decade, the NEC commission reported last year.

Among other things, the rail corridor is operating with electrical and signaling systems from the 1930s, making service on the line highly susceptible to malfunctions and delays, according to the NEC commission.

Six projects in Maryland are on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor infrastructure needs list. They include replacing the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnels built in 1873, replacing bridges across the Bush, Gunpowder and Susquehanna rivers and adding a fourth track at the BWI Amtrak station and between Landover and Odenton.

To put the corridor’s infrastructure challenges into fiscal perspective, consider that the six Maryland projects alone would cost an estimated $4.35 billion.  They are typical of the 36 critical projects Amtrak has identified in the entire corridor. Contrast that degree of need with the reality that the current year’s federal funding for all Amtrak capital projects is approximately $1.4 billion. Amtrak has asked for a 16 percent capital funding increase for fiscal 2015.

But Amtrak ultimately needs to have multi-year capital funding guarantees in place to better enable the railroad to make expensive infrastructure improvements, says Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman.  

“Continuation of current funding levels leave Northeast Corridor infrastructure vulnerable to a bigger, costlier and far more damaging failure than anything yet seen,” Boardman told Railway Age magazine in March. “The nation cannot afford to let a railroad (the Northeast Corridor) that carries half of Amtrak’s trains and 80 percent of the nation’s rail commuters fall apart; the economic consequences would be devastating.”

How critical to the nation’s economy is The Northeast Corridor?  For starters, it serves more than 750,000 passengers daily who contribute $50 billion in annual productivity to the national economy. Further, failing to make infrastructure improvements by 2025 to accommodate growing ridership would result in $1.2 billion in additional urban highway and aviation infrastructure costs as potential riders divert to alternative transportation, the NEC commission estimates.

Conversely, “transformational” investments in the nation’s busiest rail corridor could yield $8.2 billion in positive economic impacts derived from relieving airport and highway congestion, the commission calculates.

Probably few things illustrate the escalating infrastructure challenges our nation faces more dramatically than the plight of the Northeast passenger rail corridor. 

Funding deteriorating infrastructure for transportation and other essential public works in urban areas is among the most significant fiscal issues that remain chronically unresolved at both the national and state levels.

To address these critical issues and to avoid letting them inhibit our economy will require that our policy-makers opt for collaborative and creative solutions rather than continuing to kick the infrastructure can down the road.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.