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Monday, June 16, 2008

Time's right for rail

From an editorial in The Capital Times (Madison):

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 $4gas and gridlocked and unreliable airports. We might even have had rail service to Madison. . . .

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