In a popular TV commercial, an annoying duck follows unsuspecting people around, quacking "AFLAC!" to remind them of the benefits of a certain brand of health insurance.
Now that I've seen President George W. Bush's proposed budget for next year, I think it advisable to hire the duck to waddle the streets of Washington, D.C. His job would be to quack "Amtrak!" as loudly as possible, reminding people of the irreplaceability of our nationwide train system, which the Bushies have placed squarely in their gun sights.
Republicans have been trying to get rid of Amtrak for years. Each year they propose putting less money in the budget for Amtrak than it needs to survive, and each year Congress comes to the rescue. But with the Bush administration now determined to end once and for all scores of programs that Americans have grown used to, it wants to stop funding Amtrak completely.
The goal is to drive the train system into bankruptcy, from which it would theoretically emerge leaner and more efficient, or to force the states to take over interstate rail travel. The result would be disastrous, however, and is guaranteed to leave whole swaths of the country without reliable train service.
The Bushies are doing this partly for ideological reasons: smaller government, less drain on the taxpayers' pocketbooks, the argue. They say Amtrak has failed in the open market by not generating enough revenue to support itself. But the argument is a scam. Republicans claim the airlines and the highway systems are self-supporting - the airlines through ticket taxes and the highways through gasoline taxes, while Amtrak is like the lazy brother on welfare. In fact, the airlines and highways are subsidized by billions of taxpayer dollars. And virtually every mass transportation system in the world, including every railroad system, requires some kind of government subsidy to survive.
By all accounts, David Gunn, who took over the helm of Amtrak in 2002, has done a remarkable job of running the railroad with limited resources. Amtrak had 25 million riders last year, an all-time record, and ridership has soared not only on the most profitable northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, but on short distance routes in the west, on the Pacific Surfliner in southern California, in the Midwest, and on its long distance routes.
Whenever I take the train from New York to Springfield or Boston, or to Baltimore or Washington, I think of how I'd ride the train more often, if it only went to more places quickly and often, and if I didn't have to make so many stops in between.
Americans love their cars and find planes more convenient for long trips, but we also love trains. The problem is there aren't enough of them. Vukan Vuchik, professor of transportation at the University of Pennsylvania, says there's a substantial untapped market for train trips of 200-400 miles, and that the trains could really compete with the airlines if we made those trips really fast and pleasant. And he sees a latent market for long-distance train trips among Americans and foreign tourists who want to see the country at a leisurely pace and travel with their families. To do these things, Amtrak needs more government support, not less.
The Republicans have sold out the railroads to the oil interests, the airline interests and the automotive interests, which spend a lot of money on lobbying, while there's no railroad lobby. Meanwhile, it's terrible public policy to clog the New Jersey turnpike with gas-guzzling cars, when we could be traveling faster and more comfortably by train.
"Bush's message on this is atrocious," Professor Vukan told me. "It doesn't make any sense at all. It's a fraud."
Hopefully Congress will ride to Amtrak's rescue again, though the Bush administration is as determined to cut services as any administration in a long time. Now, where's that Amtrak duck?
© 2005 Newsday, Inc.