Big money fuels scheme to derail Amtrak for good

March 05, 2002|By Douglas Turner

WASHINGTON - Just 15 miles south of here, the federal government is building a $600 million spaghetti-bowl interchange at just one of the zillion intersections of the Interstate Highway System. This follows an investment of at least $200 million to add four lanes to Interstate 95 immediately south of this crowded interchange.

There is enough spent there to build a great university campus - complete with medical school, linear accelerator and chemistry laboratories. This mindless splurge, which is being replicated all over the country, will accomplish nothing.

The four new lanes are now bumper-to-bumper by 11 most Saturday mornings. This is because motor vehicle traffic abhors a vacuum. Buses, cars and trucks go where the capacity is. And traffic is expanding faster than road capacity.

Despite this investment of taxpayer dollars, the capacity of this particular interchange is locked in for the next 40 years simply because of the bridge abutments and other built-in arrangements.

State and federal highway agencies throw hundreds of billions around like this without blinking, with no public debate and virtually no media notice. It's on automatic.

Similarly, federal agencies and airport authorities dump tens of billions into new runways, aprons and other projects. That, too, is on automatic.

It doesn't take a nuclear physicist to figure out why. The combination of forces favoring sprawl, concrete and steel - automakers, contractors and oil companies - is virtually unbeatable here.

The hired guns in pinstripes representing the major airlines are likewise unstoppable. Witness last fall's congressional $15 billion bailout of the major airlines, whose callous and reckless indifference to security concerns played a role in the hijackings of Sept. 11.

These same forces have traditionally thwarted attempts by former Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and other progressive thinkers to advance rail solutions to inter-city transportation problems. These interests have succeeded in preventing Amtrak from fulfilling the promise made when President Richard Nixon created it three decades ago.

Now, with the support of White House Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., this combine has hatched a cabal to kill off Amtrak when it is most needed.

This conspiracy - and it is not too strong a term - centers on a report concocted by the so-called Amtrak Reform Council. This was a 1997 creation of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

This elitist exercise in anti-urban, regionalist bias was forced on Congress by those two Republicans as a condition of continuing the modest level - compared with the subsidies given the airline and highway businesses - of operating subsidies provided to Amtrak.

According to the 1997 law, Amtrak had to show a profit by 2002 or this Amtrak Reform Council would call on the passenger system to come up with a liquidation plan.

No national or regional passenger system in the world shows a profit, any more than the airline or trucking industries could operate without government money. All transportation - other than canoes, bikes and scooters - is subsidized.

The council also produced a plan to "reorganize" Amtrak. Complaining loudly about the modest subsidies Amtrak receives to run a national passenger system, the council proposes to break up and sell off the entire system, including the only tracks Amtrak owns - the northeastern corridor, running from Washington to Boston.

Already under the reform council's pressure to cut costs, Amtrak has announced it will cut 18 long-distance trains from service this fall, including trains running through the district of New York Republican Jack Quinn, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads.

The reorganization "plan" crafted by the council is a predictable one, considering the council's makeup. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Lott saw to it that the panel would be dominated by the most dedicated, right-wing, anti-government ideologues they could find - people who would be indifferent to the interests of Amtrak's middle-class customers.

The plan the reform council produced is an audacious union-busting grab for government property, with a death grip on the public purse. It would sell off Amtrak's assets, liquidating some, and offer parts of its system to private operators. These private operators would be subsidized, of course, according to the reform council scheme. One estimate is $100 billion over a decade.

Privatization moves in Massachusetts and Britain have proved disastrous. The $100 billion is a good estimate of what Amtrak should have gotten but didn't because of its well-heeled opponents. This outrageous plan for Amtrak is a classic case study of what can happen when entrenched big money is pitted against the common citizen in this town.

Douglas Turner is the Washington bureau chief of The Buffalo News. Readers may write him at 1141 National Press Building, Washington, D.C. 20045.

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