October 30, 2013
By Marc Bussanich
Bridgeport, CT—During yesterday’s Senate field hearing at Bridgeport City Hall Senator Richard Blumenthal made clear that ConEd’s equipment failed because of age and therefore ConEd should reimburse Metro-North. The hearing also highlighted the challenges involved in paying for rail infrastructure upgrades when commuter railroads and Amtrak lack sufficient resources. Watch Video
After Blumenthal questioned ConEd’s president, Craig Ivey, over the cable feeder that failed on September 25 and disrupted Metro-North’s commuter service on the New Haven line for almost two weeks, he heard from two other witnesses about how the lack of rail investments is crimping the potential for economic growth in Connecticut.
Joseph McGee, Vice President with The Business Council of Fairfield County, told Blumenthal that the New Haven line needs about $3 billion just to bring the line up to a state of good repair. But he believes that planning for improvements on the line should be focused on economic growth and not just on state of good repair.
“The New Haven line is the busiest rail line today in the country. The rail system is the single economic driver for Fairfield County. As we grow the economy in Connecticut, we have to expand the capacity of this rail line. All we talk about is a good state of repair, but this system needs to be running much more frequently,” said McGee.
He noted that communities such as Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven would see economic booms if rail speeds to New York City were increased.
“If we want an economic driver for the state of Connecticut it’s improved and more frequent and faster rail service,” McGee said. “I think there is an urgency here that needs to be felt if we are going to grow the economy, this has got to be fixed.”
Blumenthal, along with fellow Senator Chris Murphy, agreed with McGee but they noted there’s a limited amount of money from Washington to spend. Blumenthal has proposed a national railway trust fund similar to the highway trust fund that would provide recurring revenue for the rail network.
But Joseph Boardman, Amtrak’s CEO, said that Amtrak can’t relieve critical bottlenecks in its network because it doesn’t receive adequate funding to start or complete the work. Boardman said that Congress has to provide the rail network with sufficient funding to maintain the infrastructure just as Congress provides to highways, airports and shipping ports.
Mr. Murphy asked Mr. Boardman how does Amtrak prioritize its spending despite the lack of multi-year funding. Boardman said Amtrak has identified numerous bridges and other rail network components that have to be replaced but they remain currently just conceptual engineering projects.
“Most of them aren’t beyond that. They need to be in final design and in construction. We have to move these projects and stop dealing with it one year at a time,” said Boardman.
Both senators said there’s a need to think outside the box to figure out how to finance rail spending. Last week the US Chamber of Commerce released a new report about how the Chinese, because they possess a growing pool of available capital, can help finance US infrastructure projects.
The chamber expects there’ll be $8 trillion in spending on infrastructure through 2030, or about $455 billion per year on a variety of projects. It projects energy and transportation spending at 57 percent and 36 percent, respectively, out of the total projected need.
When asked what does he think about the possibility of Chinese participation in rebuilding US infrastructure, Blumenthal said he hadn’t read the report but that any source of financing should be considered.
Murphy seemed to reject the idea by saying there’s enough domestic capital to tap.
“If you set up a national infrastructure bank there would be plenty of domestic sources of financing that would rush into that vehicle such that I’m not sure you would have to go to the Chinese,” Murphy said.
Follow Marc Bussanich on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org