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Uncertainty as to Progress in Railway Transportation

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

I asked Bill Wichterman, Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, if there would be a public ceremony when President George W. Bush signed the Rail Safety Bill, a five-year authorization for Amtrak and new money authorized for the Washington, D.C. Metro. This major piece of legislation passed both Houses of Congress by veto-proof majorities. I was quickly told that while Bush would sign the measure, he would do so in private without public ceremony. He didn't want to have another one of his vetoes overridden and didn't much care for the bill. It reminds me of when President William J. (Bill) Clinton signed the DOMA legislation (the bill which provided that no State of the Union would have to accept gay marriage if another State adopted it) on his way to the Democratic Convention in 1996. He didn't want the fight with the Congress but he really hated the bill.

It is a pity that Republican Presidents have such a negative view of rail. Sure, they don't like the subsidy. But why then don't they balk at authorizing billions for the airlines and billions for highways? Congress understands that we need a transportation system alternative to the airlines. When 9/11 occurred it was the trains which began to move people. It took weeks for some airlines again to serve Washington, D.C. and New York City. It is strange that while Republican Presidents always have paid lip service to doing away with Amtrak, it has done better with the Republicans than with the Democrats. President Jimmy Carter nearly destroyed the national system, as his people gave the axe to so many long-distance trains. President Clinton paid Amtrak lip service but gave it a starvation diet. It was, after all, President Richard M. Nixon who brought Amtrak into being. The great conservative Ronald Reagan always said he wanted to end Federal payments to Amtrak but Amtrak fared better under President Reagan than it did under Carter and perhaps even under Clinton.

Now comes Bush, who for the eight years of his Presidency appeared to be anti-Amtrak. His budgets always were designed to kill the national system but when Congress didn't agree he didn't fight. And now he ends up signing the first authorization bill which could give Amtrak more than just enough money merely to survive.

Of course, this is only an authorization bill. What Amtrak actually receives will depend upon how many dollars the appropriators are willing to cough up. It also will depend upon who is President. As of this writing, the Presidential contest is Senator Barack Hussein Obama's to lose. Yet three weeks is an eternity in politics. Should Senator John Sidney McCain, III score a come-from-behind victory Amtrak would be in real trouble. He has made it clear that he wants to abolish the system as we know it. He is serious in his long held view. He would not merely pay lip service to abolishing the national system. He would fight. This is a Senator who opposed the Phoenix light-rail system in his own backyard. The voters approved of light rail by a two-thirds vote. He called the light-rail system in Minneapolis a boondoggle and a waste of taxpayers' money when virtually all other observers, both local and national, have pronounced the Hiawatha Light Rail a rip-roaring success.

On the other hand, if Democrats pick up as many seats in Congress as they project they will a President McCain may find himself with a Congress that would overwhelmingly override his vetoes. And there is the near trillion dollars in bailouts. Either new President will not have much money to spare so even if Obama would want to expand Amtrak he may not have the funds to do so.

The truth is we really won't know how either new President would treat Amtrak and urban rail systems until we see them behave in office. Today's promises mean little in the face of the fiscal realities either President will face. We won't know when we get to see their initial budgets. It well may be the end of Fiscal Year 2009 (September 30, 2009) until we have a solid idea as to whether America will be back on track, so to speak.

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