Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sequestration: Shared pain may do some good

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Here's one observer not sweating sequestration or its effects overmuch, at least not from the transportation point of view.

U.S. CapitolAs I see it, for once passenger rail and rail transit won't be the sole target of any budget-cutting as it has been so often in the decades past. This time all the modes get to join in the fun. The angst and teeth gnashing get shared by folks across the modal board. For once, I've got company!

Assuming we all get the pain applied fairly equally in that 8% range – assumptions are risky, I fully realize – it'll actually be fun to see all my frequent-flier friends moan about the injustice, the how-can-they, inflicted on the "for-profit" passenger airlines courtesy of federal fund slicing that props up those profits. Some of them have bashed Amtrak for decades. Turning the tables might be quite the delicious prospect.

The road warriors, of course, won't feel the pain instantly; they get lag time. But the potholes will mount, the decaying bridges will continue to multiply, and the cries will arise over the unfairness of Big Government in sequestering "essential" government road funds – funds I use myself, and funds I call a "subsidy" to rubber-tired vehicles of all sizes.

Oddly enough, Amtrak appears to be braced for this round of pain, and given its past one might think its expertise in such matters might be a plus. Amtrak has made polite noises about potential negative effects, but reading rail columnists, and reading between the lines of releases from groups such as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, one gets the sense that, once more, Amtrak can take it.

More concern is voiced by rail transit agencies, and certainly I can see how sequestration impacts upon capital programs, which this nation sorely, desperately needs. But the feds quit offering significant operating funding support (or "subsidies," always the dirty transit word) years ago. I won't discount some sort of disruption or pain, but so far I don't see my daily rail travels upended in any meaningful way—certainly far less rearranged than Hurricane Sandy managed.

Meanwhile, remember the freight railroads? By and large, they maintain their rights-of-way using their own capital, certainly to a far greater degree than comparable surface modes. So even if I’m way off when it comes to moving people, I don’t fret about freight that much; at least for now, the rails will deliver.

Serious talking heads, mostly on financial-focus shows, insist that the ne'er-do-well Congress and the intransigent President of the United States must make the hard choices and cut the programs that "deserve" cutting. But it goes beyond those entities; the U.S. citizen public itself, by and large, couldn't and still can't decide what to cut and what not.

That same public, I'd note, has consistently rallied to support Amtrak over and over again in past decades, and while such support saved Amtrak, it didn't save Amtrak from serious cuts, sometimes severe cuts, even while the "for-profit" airlines got a tidy package of billions in fed assistance following 9/11, and road sprawl kept on going like the Energizer Bunny.

In short, Amtrak has been cut time and time again, only recently finding support on the presidential level. So this observer won't blame or blast the President – and will also hesitate to blame Congress – for the current standoff, because in my view this isn't comparable to past cliffhangers for rail transit endured by so many.

In the past, the phrases used by so many have been "auto-reliant" and "rail-dependent." I think sequestration will highlight just how auto-dependent the nation is, and how it should be more rail-reliant. As for the "for-profit" airlines merging like crazy to keep aloft, they'll have to deal with the reality of being, at least in part, dependent on my federal tax dollars just like so many other entities are.

It's very, very likely I've missed something in the fiscal tea leaves that will cause me to revisit my assumption in the not-too-distant future; dramatic (or drastic) actions often generate unexpected consequences. So be it. I'm not advocating sequestration as a desirable means of government. But I'm not convinced its effects will be all negative. For transportation, and specifically for passenger rail transportation, we'll find out.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.