In her third hearing as the Chair of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, U.S. Senator Patty Murray today focused on delays in plane and train travel. Murray summoned the directors of the Federal Aviation Administration and AMTRAK to discuss challenges in intercity transportation.

Witnesses included:

  • Jane Garvey, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration
  • George Warrington, President of AMTRAK.
Senator Murray's opening statement follows:

Over the last two decades, our economy has grown dramatically. That growth has spurred an unprecedented rise in intercity transportation. Americans are traveling from city-to-city for business and pleasure at a growing rate, and we're feeling the impact on our highways, railways, and runways.

This year, the American people will log roughly 4.5 trillion miles across all transportation modes. That represents a 70 percent increase in the last twenty years. The demand has grown, but the infrastructure has not. Today it is painfully clear that we do not have the infrastructure to support this historic level of mobility.

As a result, today we're experiencing a record number of flight delays. Highway congestion is also at its worst levels ever. Amtrak's intercity passenger trains are also facing congestion problems as they vie for the same limited track space as commuter and freight trains.

This infrastructure crunch is especially bad in the Northwest. Along the Tacoma-Seattle-Everett Corridor, commuters face the second worst traffic in the nation. Our one and only major airport – the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport – is near or at the bottom of the list in on-time arrivals and departures. We've been trying to add an additional runway at SeaTac for 15 years.

In the Northwest, our railways are also congested. Despite strong partnerships from the state of Washington and our railroads, it's been difficult to make tracks throughout the Puget Sound corridor capable of handling high speed rail.

There are similar challenges throughout this country. I have called this hearing to address the challenges we all face in intercity transportation.

As the new Chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee, I feel like I have inherited some daunting challenges. Solving these challenges will take an extraordinary effort by both the Department of Transportation and this Subcommittee. It will also require creative thinking on the part of all participants as well as a significant financial investment.

But I do want to stress that money is not the entire solution to these problems. Currently, the FAA benefits not only from a large trust fund but also from billions of dollars of annual general fund subsides. Overall, spending for the Federal Aviation Administration has increased 50 percent over the last seven years. During this time, the agency has enjoyed greater authority to reform its personnel and procurement systems than any other agency in the federal government. During the same period, however, "wing lock" on our runways has continued to worsen, and procurement problems with the modernization of our air traffic control system have persisted.

I know that I am joined by all the members of the Subcommittee in asking for recommendations to reverse this trend. So I am glad that we have with us this morning, Jane Garvey, our Federal Aviation Administrator, to put forth some recommendations. Ms. Garvey is responsible for maintaining the safest air traffic control system in the world, and she is to be commended for her efforts at reinvigorating the agency in recent years.

On our second panel, we will hear from George Warrington, the President of Amtrak. Amtrak does not derive funding from any trust fund. It has survived largely on general fund appropriations. In recent years, that funding has declined continually while appropriations for all our other infrastructure investments have grown dramatically.

Ever since the Amtrak Reform Act was signed into law in 1997, Amtrak has been on a six-year mission to become self-sufficient of federal operating subsides. "Self-sufficiency" has become the mantra down at Amtrak. The Reform Act required Amtrak to go from being the least subsidized national railroad in the world to the only such railroad that receives no federal operating subsidies.

Amtrak has made dramatic progress in improving revenues since the Reform Act was adopted. However, only a small portion of those increased revenues have been derived from its passenger train operations. Amtrak has been less successful at controlling its costs. But that should come as no surprise given the massive physical facilities that Amtrak must maintain all over the country -- especially along the Northeast corridor.

The Department of Transportation Inspector General has recently reported on Amtrak's finances, and his conclusions should concern all of us. Amtrak has been required to take on greater and greater amounts of debt to stay on the path to self-sufficiency.

Most recently, due to the continuing delays in launching Amtrak's new high speed service in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has had to borrow an additional $300 million just to cover its operating expenses for the current year. The pressure to become the world's only self sufficient national railroad has put Mr. Warrington in the role of the magician. Every few months, he must pull a new rabbit out of his hat just to keep Amtrak afloat. I am deeply concerned that, in the near future, Mr. Warrington will go to his hat and find that he is out of rabbits.

Increasingly, I am coming to the conclusion that Amtrak's drive to become self sufficient is resembling some kind of "fool's errand." At a time when the nation's Mayors and Governors are asking us for more and more intercity passenger rail service, we are allowing Amtrak to get deeper and deeper into debt while we invest more and more money into other modes of transportation.

Unfortunately, given the structure of TEA-21 and the allocation that this subcommittee has been granted for 2002, there is very little that this subcommittee can do to reverse this trend this year. But I hope and expect that the Administration and the Congress will face these issues head-on when we reauthorize Amtrak and, hopefully, pass the High Speed Rail Investment Act.

So we've got a lot of challenges ahead of us, and I'm pleased that we have some very knowledgeable witnesses with us this morning to share their perspectives with us.