Time's Right for Rail
The impossible happened this week -- the U.S. Senate and House voted overwhelmingly to fully fund Amtrak for the next five years. There's even some matching money to help states set up or expand rail service.
It's amazing what four-buck-a-gallon gas will do.
Amtrak's funding package even got the votes of some of its biggest critics, like Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, who admitted for the first time that Americans need some transportation choices.
"Nothing could be more fitting to bring before Congress today, on a day when gasoline has reached $4.05 a gallon across the United States on average," he announced on the floor.
The two houses need to patch over some minor differences in the bills they passed, but Amtrak backers are confident that won't be any trouble.
The biggest trouble, though, may still come from the White House. President Bush, who has attempted to dismantle the national rail system throughout his presidency, has pledged to veto the bill. Fortunately, both the House and Senate passed the funding by veto-proof margins. Unless Republicans switch because they don't want to "embarrass" their president, Bush's veto will be moot.
Frankly, the president should be embarrassed. His stand on public transportation has marginalized him on the issue. He continues to insist that Amtrak should be dismantled and pieces of it turned over to private companies to run short-line routes. That might work in highly urbanized areas, but without government subsidies the vast expanse of America would be left with no rail service of any kind.
But Bush has been far from alone. There has long been a mind-set against subsidizing rail transportation. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have never had trouble subsidizing the building of more and bigger highways and underwriting the cost of airports and sleek terminals, but when it came to rail, they sang a different tune.
Had we adequately funded Amtrak so that it could have improved trackage in congested areas and run more than one train a day between big cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, for example, the country would today have a reasonable alternative to $4 gas and gridlocked and unreliable airports. We might even have had rail service to Madison.
And now that Congress appears to be finally seeing the light, let's hope that Wisconsin does too, and scraps its plans to eventually spend nearly $2 billion to widen I-94 between Milwaukee and the Wisconsin-Illinois state line, ostensibly to relieve congestion in Racine and Kenosha counties.
The DOT has been relentlessly moving ahead with the project despite an outcry from area citizens that what's really needed is commuter rail, which would cost a fraction of what it would take to expand the interstate.
If ever there was a time not to encourage yet more travel by automobile, this is it.
Americans are at a point where they're looking for alternatives. At $4 a gallon for gas, they'd embrace rail transit if only it were available. That's not to mention the environmental benefits that come from people riding in train cars rather than spewing carbon into the air while driving and idling in traffic.
It's beyond time for our governments -- federal, state and local -- to come to grips with the future of higher-priced and less-available oil.
That future doesn't involve building more superhighways.
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