By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
Former Macomb Mayor Tom Carper, who just ended a four-year term as chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors, thinks passenger rail has a great future in the United States.
"I think things are going to be very interesting at Amtrak in the next four or five years," Carper said. "I think we're pretty well over the hump. People want service, and there's increasingly bipartisan support for it in Congress."
That support has not always been there. In both 2006 and 2007, then-President George W. Bush zeroed out Amtrak's budget allocation before Congress approved Amtrak funding both years.
Then in 2008, Bush signed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act into law, providing $13 billion to upgrade much of the passenger rail system. Bridges, stations and tracks were upgraded, and Amtrak acquired 15 new locomotives and 81 passenger train cars.
Meanwhile, Americans were voting with their wallets and ticket sales rose from 20.5 million in fiscal 2000 to 31.2 million in fiscal 2012.
"We had record ridership in nine of the last 10 years. Since 2000, Amtrak's ridership has grown 49 percent," Carper said.
Carper might be most recognized in the Tri-State region through his 12 years serving as mayor of Macomb, ending in 2003. He said that's also where he first became a supporter of passenger rail.
"You don't have any choice. If you're mayor of Quincy or Macomb, you go out and battle for it. It's in our DNA," Carper said.
Carper joined the Amtrak Board in March 2008, after he was nominated by Bush. He was named board chairman in January 2009.
Although Carper's term on the board came to an end March 16, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has suggested he be reappointed.
"Amtrak has made incredible progress under Chairman Carper's leadership. Amtrak has broken all-time records for ridership, revenue and on-time performance during his tenure," Durbin wrote in a letter sent to President Barack Obama in November.
If Carper is nominated by Obama and confirmed again by the U.S. Senate, it won't be as board chairman. Anthony Coscia of New Jersey assumed that role recently.
Carper has not been talking much about the possibility of serving another term on the board. He said until the White House nominates someone, there's not much reason to speculate.
Marc Magliari, Amtrak media relations manager, said Carper made himself accessible around the nation as an ambassador for Amtrak during his time on the board. It was a pleasure for Magliari, who was previously a broadcast journalist at WGEM, to work with an Amtrak board chairman with whom he was acquainted.
"Who knew in 2000 that a reporter in the Quincy market and a mayor in Macomb would end up working together at Amtrak? I've been honored to work with him," Magliari said.
Carper said the Amtrak Board is committed to setting up a long-term plan for passenger rail service in the U.S.
"We're somewhere between being a private business and a federal agency," he said.
Amtrak brought in more than $2 billion in revenue through ticket sales last year and covered about 88 percent of its own costs. That is far better than passenger rail systems in other nations.
Carper said a broad partnership of interests has made Amtrak the success it is, with mayors, chambers of commerce, elected officials at all levels, tourism officials, organized labor, economic development specialists and others all supporting passenger rail service.
"It takes everybody at the table. That's what makes it work," he said.
"This is not a luxury. It's something we need."