WASHINGTON — Of all the presidential prospects, Sen. John McCain appears the least likely to lift Amtrak out of the long, waking nightmare it has endured for decades. Amtrak has no more dedicated foe in the Congress than McCain, R-Ariz.
The GOP’s likely nominee is also the least likely to care about a national transportation policy. The absence of such a plan is at the heart of why motorists and airlines — and now grocers — are gagging at the price of fuel these days. ...
...In the 1990s, Moynihan was not cash-conscious. Then a Democratic senator from New York and a power on the public works committee, he wanted the federal government to invest in high-speed intercity rail. President Bill Clinton’s minions smothered Moynihan’s hopes.
The nation’s governors also turned up their noses at almost all of the mass transit subsidies Moynihan offered them.
Clinton’s disinterest in rail and mass transit might be a reflection of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s views. She supports modest Amtrak subsidies like most Democrats, but she has invested little or no campaign time talking about it. Nor has Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., her rival for the presidential nomination.
To their credit, neither has voiced the righteous outrage at Amtrak support that McCain has at every opportunity. Someone should mention that 12 states that control 180 of the 270 electoral votes needed for election are highly dependent on Amtrak.
Under President Bush, Amtrak intercity service has limped along, deteriorating by the week. Service from Buffalo to Albany is now hampered by track work that can add up to an hour to the trip.
Five days a week, Amtrak travelers from Buffalo to Boston must take a bus on the Rensselaer-Boston leg because of track work. Thanks to the Clinton administration’s creation of regional freight rail monopolies that have no oversight.
After 16 months in office, congressional Democrats have finally produced a bill reauthorizing Amtrak. It offers only anemic operating cash to the line, and fails to extend the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor into Virginia and North Carolina, whose roads choke with traffic.
But the bill backed by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, offers $24 billion in tax-exempt bonds and 80 percent reimbursement to states for high-speed rail construction.
The business is there. Gas prices, clogged skyways and air travel hassles have driven more customers to Amtrak, hamstrung as it is. Business is up 11 percent nationally, and almost 20 percent on the rickety line from Buffalo Niagara to Manhattan.
What is needed is an unapologetic presidential commitment for a nationalized passenger system on the scale of the Interstate Highway program. President Dwight Eisenhower, who built it, was no communist.
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