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Published: Saturday, 2/19/2005

Starving Amtrak

IN ITS latest slam-dance with mass transportation, the Bush Administration is proposing to end the federal operating subsidy for Amtrak, which provides virtually all of what's left of passenger rail service in this country.

The reason: The well-worn but illogical excuse that Amtrak isn't making money and never will. But if that's the prime criterion for tax support, the administration might just as well withhold subsidies for the airlines and highways, which aren't making money either.

Despite massive government aid, the airlines are having trouble staying in business, while the highway system has grown so extensive that local, state, and federal governments struggle with exploding maintenance and construction costs.

The administration's budget plan for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1, is to strip the $500 million annual operating subsidy from Amtrak, require it to compete with other railroads to run long-distance passenger service, and force state and local governments to subsidize new equipment and stations to get a matching share of the agency's annual $1.2 billion capital outlay.

"If there is no local share, then we do not contribute," declared Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

Mr. Mineta might just as well be calling on the states to share the cost of Bradley Fighting Vehicles for the war in Iraq. Virtually all states, Ohio and Michigan included, are mired in fiscal problems so immense these days that subsidizing passenger trains is far from the minds of most governors and legislators.

As we have noted before, the administration can't find a politically correct way to kill Amtrak so it is attempting to starve it to death. So far, the administration has succeeded at robbing the agency of money for new locomotives and cars and for equipment and track maintenance, forcing cuts in schedules - problems that almost guarantee it can't provide service the public wants.

No, Amtrak hasn't made a profit since it started in 1970, and maybe it never will. Even its popular Acela high-speed service on the eastern seaboard hasn't made money. But that isn't the point. The nation needs railroads as part of a well-rounded passenger transportation system, just as surely as it needs buses, airplanes, and cars.

It's up to Congress to continue support for Amtrak that will allow passenger trains to maintain a decent level of service across the country and in heavily populated areas. With the realization that the world's supply of oil is not unlimited, this is no time to write off this vital segment of mass transit.



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