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Ralph Nader > Special Features > Don’t Derail AMTRAK

TO: Members of the United States Senate
FR: Ralph Nader
DT: March 31, 2005

The debate over how we spend tax dollars has been made increasingly more difficult because of President Bush’s costly invasion of Iraq and his insistence on providing tax benefits to the wealthy and massive subsidies to other private industries. Now President Bush is proposing cuts in important programs to make up for his past errors of judgment. AMTRAK is, consequently, on the chopping block.

President Bush’s proposal to reduce the federal government’s contribution to AMTRAK to zero for fiscal year 2006 smacks of the kind of short-term political thinking that has made development of a robust mass transit system and the security it provides in the United States so difficult.

On February 10, 2005 thirty-five Senators sent a letter to Senators Gregg and Conrad noting that:

At a time when Amtrak is setting ridership records and as congestion at our airports and on the highways continues to increase, we believe it would be a grave mistake to cut the essential federal funds that keep Amtrak operating. Without such funds or other intervening action, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy and shutdown of all Amtrak services, leaving millions of riders and thousands of communities without access to the essential and convenient transportation that Amtrak provides.

Despite this significant opposition to President Bush’s proposal, on March 16, 2005 the Senate voted 52-46 against a resolution put forward by Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.VA) calling for Congress to approve $1.4 billion in funding for AMTRAK. It is clear that issuing press releases, sending letters, and making speeches on the floor of the Senate are gestures that, while well-intentioned, are not sufficient to counter President Bush’s foolish proposal.

It is time for Senators who have opposed AMTRAK to step back from the political fray and recognize the clear national interest in maintaining, supporting and indeed expanding a publicly-supported rail system. Rail is massively under-subsidized as compared to auto, truck and air transportation, and it offers enormous benefits as compared to these alternative modes of transport, not the least of which is reducing our dependence on imported oil. On this matter, at least, cannot narrow political calculus take a back seat to clear national interest?

It is time for Senators who have said the right things about mass transit and voted to fund AMTRAK at a modest level to redouble their efforts. It is time to use the public platform that is afforded to members of this elite institution to mobilize the citizens who will suffer if AMTRAK is not adequately funded. And it is time to launch an all-out effort to convince those Senators who either out of ignorance, geography, or automatic political loyalty are supporting a misguided President’s misguided initiative to do the right thing and vote to properly fund AMTRAK. Each Senator who supports AMTRAK should persuade one fellow Senator to vote to save AMTRAK. It is time to drop the collegial deference that breeds bad public policy and stand strong for the interests of the public.

Building a world-class rail system has economic and environmental benefits. Moreover, ensuring that trains run far and wide will make our nation’s transportation system less vulnerable to intentional and accidental disruptions. When all airlines were grounded in the wake of 9/11, Amtrak and other rail services filled much of the transportation gap, not only for regular passengers but for the workers who were vitally important to the rescue and recovery efforts in lower Manhattan. Airlines could again be a target in any future terrorist attack. To cripple rail service through draconian budget cuts would be a serious blow to the nation’s efforts to limit the damage from any future terrorist attack. The Senate is an independent body – it should act like one and tell President Bush to focus on domestic needs and priorities that have broad public support and enormous benefits to our country rather than looking for wedge issues that divide our country and leave solutions to our nation’s problems unused.