It Really Is a Puzzlement

I got an email yesterday from a friend in Kansas who was wondering why so many Republicans in Congress are so adamantly against using tax dollars to pay for rail transportation in general and Amtrak in particular.

That’s a question I’ve struggled with for years. I find the case for rail so clear and so compelling that I’m baffled when someone doesn’t get it. What’s wrong with these people? What prevents them from understanding what is so damn obvious?

Some Republican legislators, I’m afraid, are simply locked into their position and will not or cannot change their minds. John Mica, a Republican congressman from central Florida, spoke at our NARP* board meeting last month. This guy is an implacable opponent of Amtrak and constantly refers with a sneer to “our soviet-style railroad”, whatever the hell that means. Forget about turning him around. Even if he hears you, he does not listen.

Other members of Congress are simply unaware of the important role Amtrak is already playing in our national transportation system, despite having been nearly starved to death over the past decade or so. For instance, we spoke to several elected officials who were mistakenly under the impression that there is a lack of ridership on Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

The origin of this misperception probably goes back to Bush’s first Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, who is famous for making what is probably one of the most brazenly false statements of all time. “Amtrak,” he said, “operates trains no one rides to places no one wants to go.” That is such nonsense and so easily disproved, one wonders why he thought he could get away with it. Regardless, there are still people in influential positions who believe it to be true.

Some of this anti-rail attitude by Republicans is ideological – an automatic knee-jerk opposition to any federal “subsidy.” That, in my book, is either willfully hypocritical or monumentally stupid because in one way or another government already subsidizes all forms of public transportation, from the airlines to sidewalks.

In his remarks to the NARP board, Mica himself said he has reservations about giving Amtrak the $1.7 billion they are asking for because of so many other demands on funds set aside for transportation needs … including, he noted, five BILLION dollars for one new runway at Miami International Airport. He said it with a straight face, too.

*National Association of Railroad Passengers