It's hard to overstate the irresponsibility of the Bush administration's effort to "zero fund" Amtrak.
We're being told that the 34-year-old national railroad corporation is so bureaucratic and wedded to long-distance routes that perpetually lose money — "running trains that nobody rides between cities nobody wants to travel between," says Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta — that it should be thrown into bankruptcy.
But an abrupt cutoff of federal support, currently $1.2 billion a year?
It's worth remembering that Amtrak, which last year increased its ridership 4.3 percent, to 25 million passengers, plays a critical role in U.S. transportation. Regional and local commuter rail systems are tied closely to it. It's a lifeline for hundreds of cities and smaller towns across 46 states (including many "red" Bush states). Plus, an Amtrak shutdown would be a body blow to the crowded Northeast Corridor (Boston-Washington) — a critical part of the U.S. economy.
Even the threat of a sudden federal funding cutoff is a red flag to the fiduciaries of insurance firms, banks and credit-card companies that Amtrak deals with, warns James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative. Amtrak wouldn't have the luxury of "time-out-to-reorganize" bankruptcy provisions the airlines have used. With the Bush zero-budget announcement, RePass asserts, "Amtrak came within hours of closing instantly, stopping trains and forcing people to get off."
"Zero Dollars equal Zero Trains," warns the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
And what then? Mineta predicts private operators would bid for new regional passenger rail opportunities, and the federal government would consider a 50-50 match with states that are willing to invest in new tracks and stations.
The idea may sound nice, but it's a political nonstarter: The governors, meeting in Washington recently, made it clear they lacked the budget power or will to step up to the plate. Even with will, Carl Fowler of the Rail Travel Center asserted in a recent commentary for UPI, the multistate compacts to subsidize actual operations would prove "unimaginably difficult to reach." What if one state — along the Northeast Corridor, for example — refused to cooperate? Would trains, as Mineta suggests, pass through with doors locked?
Plus, as Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers explains, "Amtrak is a complex legal, economic and geographical balancing act. If it gets smashed it will be very difficult to pick up the pieces."
Amtrak enjoys, for example, preferential legal rights to run its trains on rights of way the freight railways own, and at legally restrained prices. It has the legal right to lease and operate stations owned by the freight lines. It has systemwide liability insurance. New operators, starting arm's-length negotiations on each issue, might well get swamped in the costs and legalisms.
A related quandary: Isolated pockets of regional service couldn't command the broad congressional support that Amtrak (or any other form of national rail service) needs to exist.
The Bush crowd should buy a history book, and glance around the globe. A prime reason we abandoned the Articles of Confederation and formed a federal union was to develop as a nation, not warring camps. How much of a national road system would we now have if Washington had told the states to go construct the interstate highway system — and just maybe, guys, we'll pay half the bill.
Other advanced nations are now building world-class rail systems. Every system, like roads or air or any transit form, receives massive government subsidy. Japan and Germany, notes Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., spend about 20 percent of their national transportation budgets on trains, compared with the 2 percent Amtrak has requested.
And check the energy factor. One train can replace hundreds of cars driven on today's congested (and federally subsidized) highways, saving thousands of gallons of gasoline. As oil prices soar, doesn't rail make more sense than ever?
This is the moment the United States should be building a top-notch national system. Our immense geography does suggest that despite some continental rail connections, most of our focus should be on regional rail systems — Midwest, Pacific Northwest, California, Florida, Texas, the Mid-South, for example.
In a larger sense, we need to think how all the transportation forms of every region — road, rail, water, even bikeways — actually relate and could promote conservation through smart interconnections. RePass of the National Corridors Initiative has a best new idea to get there: Reorganize the transportation committees of Congress by major region of the country, not individual mode (a system that typically pits highway interests against aviation against railroads in a zero-sum scramble for money and power).
With a regional system, Congress could at least attempt a systems-approach analysis of how transportation could evolve in real places. And national policy would be inured against the kind of rash shortsightedness of the Bush push to bankrupt Amtrak.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.
© 2005 Seattle Times