archivelogo
 The Brancatelli File

joe IS AMTRAK FINALLY
AT THE END OF THE LINE?


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

February 10, 2005 -- From red state and blue, from left wing and right, from big coastal cities and small heartland hamlets, from Republican and Democratic parties, Congress banded together this week to protest President Bush's proposal to strip Amtrak of its funding in the next federal budget.

This uprising across the entire spectrum of American politics is exactly why Amtrak needs to die. Amtrak isn't a national passenger rail system. It's a rotting barrel of pork and the stench wafts through every station along the line.

Amtrak has limped along for more than a generation not because it's still needed. Not because it works. Not because it serves America well. Not because it can be fixed. Not even because having no Amtrak is worse than having a bad Amtrak.

It survives because politicians from around the nation exact their pound of pork flesh under the guise of maintaining a national rail system. It survives because no Amtrak official has ever had the guts to tell Congress the self-evident truth: America doesn't need Amtrak, Americans don't care about national rail service and taxpayers won't stand for the cost of any system worthy of the designation "national passenger railroad."

Now before you accuse me of hating mass transit--or, worse, suggest that I'm just another columnist on the Bush Administration payroll--know this: I have ridden mass transit almost every day of my life. I proudly use and willingly pay toward a regional commuter-railroad system. And I'm prepared to dig much deeper to pay for the privilege of not driving or flying whenever a train makes more sense.

I like trains. America needs trains. And, with the proper regional vision, adept management and focused, 21st century goals, Americans will pay for trains.

But a national passenger railroad system? Get real. And Amtrak, this bizarre arrangement where the federal government actually runs passenger trains? Lord, no.

I think I laid out my general beliefs about Amtrak quite adequately in a 2002 column called Die, Amtrak, Die. No need to repeat myself.

What I think we should focus on today is the political hue and cry that erupted this week after the Bush budget was announced.

In case you missed it, the 2006 budget unveiled Monday provides no operating subsidy for Amtrak. Like President Reagan before him, President Bush is trying to get the federal government out of the passenger-rail business. The Administration's sole funding option is a $360 million grant to help regional commuter lines that operate on the bits of infrastructure that Amtrak actually owns.

Of course, no one actually thinks that Amtrak will be shut out when the 2006 budget is finally adopted. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said as much on Monday. He said the Bush proposal was a "call to action" for Congress. "We've decided to go to zero to get their attention," Mineta added.

But Congress is part of Amtrak's problem, not part of its solution. The cross-party, pan-geographic, hands-across-the-cultural-divide Congressional response shows nothing if it doesn't show how no one is focusing on the fact that Amtrak is a waste of money and its purported ideal, a national passenger rail system, is operationally unnecessary and politically impossible.

Any clear-eyed view of the nation's rail needs points to regional and local, not national, solutions. We need intense public investments in heavily populated regional corridors like the Northeast, the West Coast and the Midwest. We also need good commuter-rail options in places like Texas, Florida and the Carolinas. We desperately need inter-modal solutions that integrate airports into commuter-rail networks. And sparsely populated states like Montana and the Dakotas need to figure out what kind of rail system they can support.

In short, we need flexibility, rationality, sensibility, practicality and local accountability when it comes to American rail policy. Congress, in case you haven't noticed, isn't exactly structured to handle that kind of nuanced approach.

The political representatives of less-populous states will never vote for a federally funded "national" rail system that leaves them off the route map. So the legitimate needs of the heavily populated corridors are compromised. In exchange for his vote to fund Amtrak, a Congressman insists that a long-haul train take a circuitous route through his district. A Senator demands Amtrak keep running loss-making routes with famous names just so he can tell the folks back home that he kept a train arriving at the state capital at four in the morning every third Tuesday and the day after a blue moon.

Rather than resist this destructive game of federal pork-barrel politics, Amtrak's leaders have sheepishly blessed the enterprise by claiming they were maintaining a "national passenger railroad system." For years, George Warrington ran Amtrak and told Congress what it wanted to hear: A national passenger railroad system was financially viable and would eventually be independent of federal subsidy. His successor, the delusional bully David Gunn, has gone the other way. He claims with perverse pride that Amtrak can never be profitable, then demands billions to maintain the goofy system that Amtrak now runs.

But the truth is undeniable: Amtrak can't run anything like a national network on the federal funding it can get. The varied constituencies in Congress won't accept anything less than the fantasy of a national network in exchange for the meager funds it does allot. And Amtrak's bosses won't stand up and say there's no money and no need for national passenger rail services.

I'm not sure that I fully understand why President Bush wants to kill Amtrak. His reasons probably don't come from any deeply held convictions about railroads. But he's right about one thing: Amtrak needs to die. If for no other reason than the political gamesmanship and managerial cowardice that has attended it for more than 30 years and $30 billion needs to stop.

With Amtrak gone and a stake driven through the heart of the 19th century fantasy of a national passenger railroad system, the tracks would be clear for discussing serious rail solutions for 21st century America.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.