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The A Train The A Train

March 26, 2006 12:50 am

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Amtrak is afloat despite a continually fluctuating budget and without any long-term commitment from Washington. A national rail line, supporters argue, serves a vital role in transportation solutions. edtrain2.jpg.jpg

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WASHINGTON--Over the last year, I have been traveling by rail through communities across the nation, speaking with local officials, business groups, and residents about Amtrak.

Everywhere I go, people tell me the same thing: Amtrak gives them a critical link between nearby cities and forms the backbone of their regional commuter and transit systems.

No one wants anything but more and better Amtrak service.

As one official in Michigan told me, "If we had more trains, we'd put more people on 'em." And people are not just talking, they're walking (or riding, in this case). Amtrak has set ridership records in each of the last three years.

Getting around our communities and cities has never been more difficult. Gas prices are rising, airlines are going belly up, cars remain a major source of air pollution and carbon dioxide, and traffic congestion is at an all-time high.

Our economy depends on our ability to make thousands of miles seem insignificant. Yet too often, a 10- or 20- mile trip to the office takes an hour or more, and hard-won vacations begin an inch at a time on a crowded highway.

The problem is significant enough that candidates in dozens of major metro areas are being elected by pushing transportation reform. Americans are tired of the status quo because they know how important it is to get around quickly, safely, and efficiently.

Solutions to these problems are not easy, but having a broad set of transportation options creates greater flexibility to deal with problems. Amtrak, our nation's only passenger railroad, is an underused option that is in real jeopardy of being permanently derailed.

Derailed rail?

Losing Amtrak would have a definite impact on commerce, national security, the environment, and our quality of life. But our transportation funding priorities tell a different story. Congress is putting only about $1 billion a year into Amtrak.

Meanwhile, Congress' bloated 2005 Transportation Bill will dump an average of $38 billion into roads each year.

Dubious transportation "earmarks" (Alaska's infamous "Bridges to Nowhere") will cost us four times more than Amtrak's annual pittance.

While Congress regularly underfunds Amtrak, President Bush has been working to kill it outright. Last year, the president zeroed out Amtrak's funding and supported pushing the railroad into bankruptcy.

Bush's plan would have ended federal funding for Amtrak and forced cash-strapped states to pay the difference. Several routes still would have been eliminated.

Administration officials floated vague talk of a 50 percent federal funding match for state-financed projects. But the offer never actually materialized in any official proposal.

Not surprisingly, the president's plan was met with broad criticism from the public, elected officials, and rail experts--including Amtrak's then-CEO David Gunn, a Republican and Bush supporter.

In a series of pro-Amtrak votes, Congress settled on $1.3 billion for Amtrak, despite a White House veto threat.

But this annual funding struggle hinders Amtrak's ability to succeed. Imagine trying to run a household if you had no idea how much, or even if, you would be paid next month.

Critics point to Amtrak's problematic service record as a reason to end funding. But these lapses in service are due to lack of funding in the first place. The U.S. Department of Transportation has identified a chronic lack of adequate federal support as Amtrak's single biggest obstacle.

Reports have consistently shown that Amtrak needs $1.7 to $2 billion per year to stabilize service and increase quality.

Critics who call for Amtrak to make a profit are deceiving themselves. Efficiency can certainly be increased, but Amtrak is a transportation system, not a profit center.

Training better

It is true that numerous reforms that are in order. Sens. Trent Lott (R-MIss.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have written these reforms into a bill that would also provide Amtrak with reasonable, predictable funding. Such reforms would resolve issues with reliability, service quality, and infrastructure development.

Despite the support of industry, experts, labor, environmentalists, and businesses, the leadership in the Senate has thus far failed to allow an up or down vote on the bill.

Meanwhile, President Bush continues trying to kill Amtrak. In his 2007 budget, he claims to have restored funding by including $900 million for Amtrak. However, this is a 30 percent cut from last year. As far as Amtrak's CFO is concerned, $0 and $900 million yield the same result--bankruptcy.

Further, much of Bush's proposal turns out to be highly conditional. When broken down, $290 million of the proposed total is for mandatory payments on Amtrak's debt. Another $400 million is earmarked to "discretionary grants" for meeting unspecified conditions.

It is unclear whether Amtrak will ever receive any of this money. Without knowing what funding will be available, Amtrak will be unable to make strategic investments, to obtain financing, or even to undertake basic budgeting and planning.

This leaves only $210 million in funding that is actually guaranteed to Amtrak under the president's proposal--a meager amount to sustain a world-class railroad.

President Bush has made his intention to do away with Amtrak quite clear over the years, and 2006 is no different. Rather than listening to public opinion and working with Congress, the president has once again given us a plan that would shut down America's rail service.

The president should understand that a robust variety of transportation options will help us prepare for an uncertain future. Our transportation system must include a strong passenger rail system to protect our investments, our families, our environment, and our safety.

But what we get out of Amtrak depends on what we are willing to put into it.




COLIN F. PEPPARD is transportation policy coordinator for Friends of the Earth.




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