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Lay of the Land

Coal Miners' Slaughter | Derailing Amtrak | Bureau of Links Management

Derailing Amtrak

Congress spends billions on roads while trains go begging

Poised to launch the first high-speed train project in the United States, the nation's passenger railroad is nevertheless on the verge of derailing. Decades of underfunding forced Amtrak to cut 42 routes in 1996 and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy in 1997. This year has not been much easier. At the same time that Congress and the Clinton administration were preparing to fork over $28 billion to the highway industry as part of the recently passed 1999 transportation bill, Amtrak was being forced to justify its very existence.

Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) requested that Amtrak be denied all funding, except in the busy Northeast corridor. Train supporters rallied, and at presstime the Senate had budgeted $555 million for capital improvements, and the House, $609 million. But that's approximately one-third the amount (adjusted for inflation) the railroad received 20 years ago. For the first time in Amtrak's history, it will receive no operating assistance from the federal government.

"Congress is starving Amtrak when it should be nurturing it," says John Holtzclaw, chair of the Sierra Club Transportation Committee. Most transportation research shows that high-speed rail transit provides a safer, more efficient, and more environmentally responsible alternative to increasing road capacity.

A report released last winter by Northwest Environment Watch, for example, confirms that cars and light trucks are the number-one source of greenhouse gases in the Pacific Northwest. Trains are 15 times more efficient per passenger than the average automobile, and emit less pollution per rider-mile than cars, planes, and buses.

Still, Amtrak critics point to the railroad's financial woes and declare that railways are uncompetitive. "There is no more reason for taxpayers to subsidize Amtrak than there is for taxpayers to provide subsidies to . . . vacation cruise lines," sniffed a Cato Institute report last year. What Cato neglects to mention is that all transportation systems depend on hefty subsidies. This year, for example, the Senate budgeted almost $10 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration-twice the amount budgeted for public transit and more than ten times the amount budgeted for rail. Highway builders were granted nearly $30 billion with little fuss. Indeed, given Amtrak's status as the stepchild of the federal transportation system, it's remarkable that it runs at all.

Taking rail seriously is especially critical now that Amtrak is about to offer relief to the nation's congested inter-urban corridors. In 1999, high-speed trains will begin servicing the Northeast corridor, slicing two hours off the Boston-New York route. Last May, Amtrak added a fourth daily train between Seattle and Portland and cut 25 minutes off the trip time. In the Midwest, Amtrak is working on an expanded regional network centered in Chicago. North Carolina is implementing plans for a high-speed expansion of the Charlotte-to-Raleigh section of the 477-mile Piedmont corridor, and Californians will soon vote on a high-speed inter-urban rail system.

Nationally, ridership is up 6 percent this year. Even long-distance routes, which critics dismiss as needless nostalgia trips, are posting significant increases. Passenger trips on the Seattle-to-Los Angeles Coast Starlight, for example, increased 24 percent last year.

Despite these promising developments, Congress has appointed a 12-member Amtrak Reform Council to explore ways of selling the railroad should it fail to become financially independent. These privatization proposals, warns the National Association of Railroad Passengers, "not only appear to envision an Amtrak without long-distance trains," but would also halt progress on emerging inter-urban corridors. The British rail system tells a cautionary tale. After being privatized several years ago, it faced delays, route cuts, and a billion-dollar bailout by the government.

Without federal cooperation, most states and private parties aren't going to fund new rail projects, dozens of which have been proposed over the last 20 years. All have proven too expensive for states to build on their own, especially since the new federal transportation law prevents states from using highway moneys for rail projects.

"Our nation's commitment to passenger rail service is at a crossroads," says Craig S. O'Connell of the advocacy group Friends of Amtrak. "It's up to Congress to set the agenda for an environmentally balanced national transportation policy."—Linda Baker

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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