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American Opinion: Can Amtrak handle its own growth?

From the editorial: All levels of government should pay attention to the report, especially given the current challenges in building that all-important “skilled workforce.” The Biden administration has given Amtrak a big vote of confidence for good or ill. It now has yet more of your money to spend and a huge challenge on its hands.

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Thanks to billions of dollars in new federal cash soon to be flowing from last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), it seems halcyon days are coming for Amtrak riders.

America’s anemic rail network will soon get much bigger and, given all the stress on roads and air travel, even its longtime detractors are seeing more of a role for the train in modern-day America.

This is good for Chicago, the agency’s Midwest hub, and it suggests that all the attention being paid to Chicago’s Union Station is expedient.

Common sense dictates that Midwest corridors deserve upgrading: Students should be able to take the train to Ann Arbor, with one running every couple of hours and arriving on time. And we’re glad to see plans for a second train on the Empire Builder route to Minneapolis, allowing college kids better access up north and letting families take the train to Wisconsin Dells, even if the planning has taken a comically long time.

Cleveland should connect to Columbus and Cincinnati. And the network, currently rooted in the traditional industrial states, should expand in the South and West where massive population growth means choked roads.

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But train riders, and those who hope to be one, should heed a warning shot fired by Amtrak’s own Office of the Inspector General.

In a report published March 31, that office said, “The sheer size of the IIJA’s funding and requirements could strain the company’s ability to manage its current operations while concurrently planning and managing a long-term multibillion-dollar infrastructure portfolio.”

Anyone with experience of Amtrak would reply: “Ya think?” Chaos might well be ahead.

The report goes on to detail four challenges. “Demonstrating fiscal responsibility, including transparently and accurately accounting for IIJA funds; building a skilled workforce to plan and execute IIJA projects; working collaboratively with partners to achieve common IIJA goals; improving program and project management for IIJA endeavors.”

All of that sounds to us like common sense. But it’s also a cautionary reminder that Amtrak is about to be asked to handle a colossal expansion at taxpayer expense (on state and federal levels) while also making sure the existing trains run on time, not that they often do, but you get our point.

All levels of government should pay attention to the report, especially given the current challenges in building that all-important “skilled workforce.” The Biden administration has given Amtrak a big vote of confidence for good or ill. It now has yet more of your money to spend and a huge challenge on its hands.

This American Opinion editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com . Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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