Wednesday, August 13, 2003
President Bush is pushing a six-year plan to "reform" Amtrak, the nation's rail passenger. But in this case, the word "reform" is a euphemism for the word "terminate."
The Bush plan would require states -- which have less money in their own budgets these days -- to pay more of the costs of Amtrak service. The plan would also minimize the already minuscule federal subsidies for the carrier, and try to encourage competition for the most lucrative routes among private railroad operators.
Asking states to pay more for what is now a national system all but guarantees that the national system will be lost. In its place could be a hopscotch pattern of service areas. If you live in Los Angeles and want to get to Santa Barbara, you'll probably still have service. Ditto if you live in Detroit and want to take the train to Chicago.
But if you live in Bingen-White Salmon and want to travel to Spokane or Minneapolis, well, you can just forget it if this plan gets approved by Congress.
"Let them take jets," seems to be the Bush administration's attitude. Or, even worse: "Let them take buses."
Those who criticize Amtrak for not "making a profit" need to remember that billions in U.S. tax dollars routinely go to pay for America's airports and related infrastructure. What would happen to the airlines if they were responsible for building and maintaining their own airports and traffic control systems?
Amtrak, conversely, has basically been left to fend for itself in maintaining and upgrading its infrastructure of passenger cars, locomotives, tracks, and signal systems.
Just over a year ago, billions more were lavished on the airline industry in an effort to bail companies out after people stopped flying after the Sept. 11 attacks.
If anything, the reality that terrorists could temporarily shut down the entire airline industry would seem to suggest that having more than one transit system in place is a wise idea. But apparently that lesson has already been forgotten, as the administration searches near and far for places to slash services so the nation can find a way to afford the recent orgy of tax cuts.
No one objects to sincere reform efforts for Amtrak. Of course, Amtrak could well use a retooled approach. But this bill is not reform, it is a death sentence -- and those who crafted it know that.
So does U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R.-Texas), who chairs the Surface Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee.
"If you turn Amtrak over to the states, it's gone," Hutchinson said recently.
Further, it is all but unbelievable that David Gunn, the president of Amtrak, was not consulted, or even briefed, about this legislation. That's insulting and absurd.
Amtrak has served this nation amazingly well, given that it has been on a relative shoestring budget since its creation in 1971. The carrier has been serving approximately 500 communities in 46 states, including Bingen and White Salmon and Wishram.
Amtrak provides a vital transportation link for Americans, with more than 2 million people a month riding its trains. It offers a secondary means of transit in the event of an emergency. The rail network is a symbol of our nation's history and heritage. It employs thousands, and performs a valuable public service.
Amtrak deserves much better than the Bush administration is giving it.