U.S. TRANSPORTATION Secretary Norman Mineta has proposed no funding for Amtrak in the 2006 federal budget.
While the Mineta plan suggests the Bush Administration might provide some sort of 50/50 matching funds for track maintenance, it explicitly rules out any operating support. The states would have to fund any actual trains.
Consequently, no intercity train service would survive in the United States, since there is little chance the states could find funding to resume even a skeletal local service.
What does that mean for Toledo? You can be nearly certain that no trains would survive, as all Ohio services would require multi-state support compacts, which simply cannot be reached when the states are already desperate for funds for other services.
Amtrak received total operating and capital support of $1.2 billion in 2004. By contrast, total U.S. highway spending in 2001 was $133 billion, of which more than 40 percent was not recovered from gas taxes. This highway figure continues to grow each year. No passenger rail service or highway system anywhere runs at a profit.
Mr. Mineta claims we "subsidize" Amtrak and "invest" in highways. The truth is we invest in both. When has anyone of us received a dividend check from our interstate highways?
Our Rail Travel Center has sold Amtrak travel and tours since 1982. We have a unique perspective to evaluate the myths that surround Amtrak. The truth about Amtrak is very different than that presented by Secretary Mineta.
The following is our analysis of the realities ignored by the administration in its effort to bankrupt Amtrak and shift all support for passenger service directly to the states.
Amtrak's national network carried more than 25 million passengers in 2004, an all-time record.
The long-distance trains produced the majority of Amtrak's passenger miles, 2.7 billion, compared to the Northeast Corridor's 1.7 billion. (A passenger-mile is one passenger traveling one mile.)
The national network is vital. Passengers must be able to connect between trains to travel from one point to another, but Mr. Mineta's plan assures that, at best, only a few isolated local commuter services would survive. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, is correct that Amtrak must be national or it will be nothing.
Greyhound has canceled thousands of miles of rural bus lines, and the Mineta budget compounds the problem by proposing to eliminate federal subsidies for air service to many smaller airports. Increasingly, Amtrak is the only option in hundreds of cities.
Mr. Mineta speaks of "running trains nobody rides between cities nobody wants to travel between." This betrays his ignorance of how trains work. For example, Amtrak's "Empire Builder" takes passengers not only between Seattle and Chicago, but serves many cities and towns along the way.
This train stops at 38 other stations, including major centers like Spokane and Minneapolis and what Mr. Mineta views as "nowhere" communities like Wolf Point, Mont., Glacier National Park, and Wenatchee, Wash. This train "nobody rides" carried 437,200 passengers in fiscal year 2004. Most riders traveled between the almost totally Amtrak-dependent small towns along the route.
There is no parallel bus service for 932 miles from Spokane, Wash. to Minot, N.D., a truth cynically ignored by Mr. Mineta, but very important to towns whose only reliable link to the outside world is this vital, much used train.
The real truth about Amtrak is that due to lack of federal capital support, it lacks the equipment to meet the demand which already exists. As a tour operator, we have to reserve on long-distance trains a full 11 months before departure to assure space for a group. Sources in Amtrak's reservations staff advise us they turn away half the requests they receive for sleeper space because of a lack of equipment.
The Mineta plan is fundamentally flawed because it tries to shift the burden of funding Amtrak to the states.
Ohio provides the classic proof of this point. To retain service, multiple states would have to agree on a formula to split costs, in addition to appropriating operating money which they do not have. If one state refused, the service would be broken at that state border.
The original 1971 Amtrak system left out service from Buffalo to Chicago. It was briefly restored when Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois promised state grants, but the states could never agree on a subsidy formula.
Service was dropped as a result and there were no passenger trains to Toledo or Cleveland for years, until the federal government eventually restored service without state subsidy.
Under the Mineta plan, there will be no interstate rail services anywhere. We have a federal government in the United States to address issues that cross state lines, and Amtrak is a classic example. The ultimate truth about Amtrak is that it is remarkably well used, vital to the real America of small towns and inland cities, and in need of national support.
Carl Fowler is vice president and general manager of the Rail Travel Center in Putney, Vt. He has ridden more than 350,000 miles by train.
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