Intercity Passenger Rail:

Congress Faces Critical Decisions in Developing a National Policy

GAO-02-522T: Published: Apr 11, 2002. Publicly Released: Apr 11, 2002.

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Because of Amtrak's worsening financial condition, there is growing agreement that the current mission, funding, and structure for providing intercity passenger rail needs to be changed. Intercity passenger rail has the potential to complement other more heavily used modes of transportation in markets where rail transport can be competitive. The potential benefits include reduced air and highway congestion, reduced pollution caused by automobiles, reduced fuel consumption and energy dependency, and greater safety. Intercity passenger rail systems, like other intercity transportation systems, are expensive. Amtrak has called for $30 billion in federal capital support over 20 years to upgrade its operations and to invest in high-speed rail corridors. Amtrak also estimates that the cost to fully develop the 10 federally designated high-speed rail corridors and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor could exceed $50 billion over 20 years. Congress must determine if and how intercity passenger rail fits into the nation's transportation system. and what level of federal investment should be made in light of other competing national priorities. Key initial steps in this framework could include (1) establishing clear, non-conflicting goals for federal support of intercity passenger rail systems; (2) establishing the roles of governmental and private entities and developing funding approaches to provide incentives for results and accountability; and (3) ensuring that the strategies developed address stake holder interests and limit unintended consequences.

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