WASHINGTON – Joe Biden said he likes ice cream, aviators and Amtrak. But if he is elected president, his love for the railway company can be put to the test.
Amtrak is facing a crisis. The coronavirus has led many cyclists to abandon trains, causing huge drops in income. The agency has reduced its services to the heart of America. It laid off more than 2,000 workers. If it doesn’t get $ 2.8 billion in emergency funding by December, 2,400 more employees could lose their jobs, Amtrak officials warn. Large-scale projects across the country, including those in New York and New Jersey, are facing delays.
Meanwhile, Congress has blocked approval of any further relief, despite bipartisan support for the rail agency.
But as Mr Biden – a longtime Amtrak pilot and perhaps its most famous lawyer – heads for election day, rail supporters want to know more about the Democratic presidential candidate and former vice -President over what a potential Biden administration would do to resolve it.
“The Amtrak Joe Biden loves may be largely gone by the day of the grand opening,” said John Robert Smith, former chairman of the board of directors for Amtrak. “The VP must make a statement.”
When asked about Mr. Biden’s stance on Amtrak’s staff or service cuts, the Biden campaign could not provide specific details. But Matt Hill, a campaign spokesperson, said Mr. Biden had been “a staunch Amtrak pilot and an advocate for his workers throughout his career.”
“A President Biden will stand up for the Amtrak workers,” Hill said.
Amtrak is central to Mr. Biden’s personal and political identity. In 1972, a month before Mr. Biden was sworn in as senator from Delaware, his first wife and baby daughter died in a car accident. He quickly began a decades-long daily ritual of riding the train between Washington and Wilmington to honor his commitment to be home with his children every night, earning him the nickname “Amtrak Joe.”
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As a senator, he was a strong supporter of Amtrak funding. As a presidential candidate, he relied on his love for the rail network to support his image as a common man among voters.
In 1987, Mr. Biden launched his first presidential candidacy from the back of an Amtrak train. Last month, the day after his first debate with President Trump, Mr. Biden chartered an Amtrak train to speak to voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania during his “Build Back Better Express” tour.
Current and retired Amtrak workers have said Mr. Biden’s relationship with train crew during his 30-plus years as a pilot exemplifies his personality.
“Every cafe worker in this hallway knows him,” Gregg Weaver, a retired Amtrak conductor who worked on Mr. Biden’s train route, said in an interview. “He didn’t care if you carried a briefcase or a lunch bucket, he had time for you.”
Amtrak supporters recognize that there is little a presidential candidate can do to strengthen the rail agency and that any financial lifeline for the network must come from the White House and Congress.
But they say the Biden campaign could pressure Amtrak executives to do what some lawmakers and railroad advocates have urged the agency to do: lobby Congress for permission to do so. ” use funds earmarked for capital projects to temporarily save jobs and maintain service.
Amtrak has nearly $ 3.3 billion for capital projects, according to the agency’s August financial report. Rail experts say at least $ 1.4 billion of that money could be reconfigured to support worker wages and rail operations with a congressional waiver.
Amtrak has been reluctant to dip into these funds because executives fear it will delay plans to increase the safety and reliability of rail service. Amtrak currently spends between $ 200 million and $ 250 million per month to support its operations, according to chief executive officer William J. Flynn. In August, the rail agency generated nearly $ 127 million in total revenue, according to an analysis of its financial reports.
Mr Biden could draw attention to Amtrak’s struggles, rail advocates say, by publicly encouraging the agency to reverse its vacation plans and restore daily service on its long-haul routes, a vital transportation link and an economic lifeline for rural communities.
“Speaking now, Biden could lay the groundwork to assure Amtrak the pressure will only increase if Biden wins,” said Ross Capon, transportation consultant and former executive director of the National Railroad Passengers Association.
During the election campaign, Biden did not comment on Amtrak’s decision to cut jobs and cut service.
But in September, he expressed support for the 2,000 workers on leave from Amtrak. “It’s safe to say that I’ve gotten to know the hard-working men and women of Amtrak over the years,” Mr. Biden said on twitter. “I am proud to support them as they face time off due to funding cuts.”
“It is time that we support them,” he added.
Mr. Flynn said in a statement that “delaying capital work” was “not an option” and reallocating capital funds to operating expenses would also result in job losses.
Part of Amtrak’s reluctance to mine its equity may be the uncertain political climate as the Nov. 3 election draws closer, rail experts have said.
“There is a math to be done,” said Jim Mathews, managing director of the Rail Passengers Association. “A Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Senate would make it much easier to restore that capital funding.”
Amtrak supporters are also seeking more information on the Biden campaign on how the rail agency would behave under his potential presidency. Under Mr. Trump, Amtrak’s budget has been repeatedly strained, but Congress has chosen to keep funding for the agency largely. In February, the White House offered to cut its budget in half.
Mr Biden said his administration would “spark the second great rail revolution” and move to electrification of Amtrak trains.
John D. Porcari, who served as Assistant Secretary of Transportation to President Barack Obama and co-chair of the Biden Campaign Infrastructure Task Force, said Politico This month, a Biden administration could aim to not only restore Amtrak, but expand it, creating new 400-mile corridors that connect small and medium-sized towns where airlines provide limited service. Such an ambitious plan is similar to Amtrak’s 2050 vision.
Congressional aides and railroad advocates note that a plan to strengthen Amtrak has already passed in the House but lacks sufficient support in the Senate. The INVEST Act would increase rail investment by $ 60 billion over five years, including nearly $ 29 billion specifically for Amtrak.
The main sponsor of the law in the House, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, is confident that if Mr. Biden is elected he will work with Congress to give Amtrak a solid future.
“Under a Biden administration, Amtrak’s short-term and long-term needs will finally get the attention they deserve,” said DeFazio. “They don’t call him ‘Amtrak Joe’ for nothing.”