03/20/2007 10:10 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Vision Thing

Shortchanging Amtrak, Coddling the Oil Patch, Building a Stealth Superhighway Nightmare

Last month, President Bush signed a $464 billion spending bill, but he made it clear that he wasn't entirely happy with the document, given the fact that Congress shifted funds to domestic programs not of his liking and ignored some of his requests for budget cuts. Specifically, lawmakers refused to slash $400 million from Amtrak's $1.3 billion budget.

We are addicted to oil as the President clearly acknowledges. So let's take steps to undermine our mass transportation, of which Amtrak is a key component. Make sense? Not to me but perhaps it would be fair to ask, given our addiction to oil, given the instability of our oil supply and its suppliers, given the environmental damage caused by driving cars and trucks, why maintaining and building up our mass transportation capabilities is not as great a national priority as say, increasing our Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).

The doubling of our SPR from 727 million barrels to 1.45 billion barrels was announced by the President during his State of the Union address. The estimated cost is some $60 billion -- that's today's purchase price, plus the cost of financing, administration, transport, and storage.

And oh yes . . . by taking all that oil off the market, expect to pay higher prices at the pump. The doubling of the SPR, while enhancing transportation and energy security only marginally given the vast reserves already in place, becomes a major windfall for the President's favorite constituents, the oil industry.

Just think what $60 billion could do for the infrastructure of our passenger railroad system. It could overcome years of neglect and reduce our ever growing dependence on cars, highways, and airlines (think JetBlue) as well as our oil imports.

While shortchanging Amtrak, the administration has surreptitiously been planning a gargantuan 10 lane international superhighway linking the west coast ports of Mexico to the plains of Canada through the heart of the United States. Effectively it would end up bifurcating the country at a cost of $184 billion (see post "Hooray, We're Building a New 4,000 Mile 10-Lane Intercontinental Highway" 07.31.06).

While we literally ride the rails backwards, England's high-speed rail link will open within a year's time, connecting London to the center of Paris center in 2 hours and 15 minutes. According to Eurostar's Chief Executive Richard Brown, "It will mark the start of a new era in travel between the UK and mainland Europe, making high speed even faster, more reliable, and less environmentally damaging as the alternative to flying."

Not to be outdone, France only this week, opened its fastest rail line to date, connecting Paris to Strasbourg. Traveling at 200 miles per hour, transit time is a mere 2 hours and 20 minutes versus 4 hours previously.

To grasp the impact of the European achievement, by November 2003, the TGV service carried its 1 billionth passenger, and the 2 billion mark is expected to be reached in 2010. On a test run February 13,2007 the TGV's latest model achieved speeds of 344.4 miles an hour.

Of particular note, the trains are all electrified. In France, 80 percent of the electric power comes from fossil-fuel free, pollutant-free nuclear power plants.

So why not here? Well, you see, Amtrak doesn't have a heavily funded foothold in Washington's K Street lobbying club comparable to, you guessed it, the oil industry, which is forever squeezing out tax breaks, depreciation credits, and royalty holidays. Ditto construction and road building concerns, who are forever urging their friends in Congress to pave over our fields of grain with asphalt.

There's no big money pushing Amtrak. It can't even fend for itself. The entire board of directors, with one or two exceptions, are Bush appointees loyal to the administration and its values. There are a handful of politicians on Capitol Hill partisan to Amtrak, such as Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Trent Lott (R.-MIss), egged on no doubt by constituents in their districts using Amtrak's services. But hey, those people take the train, what do you expect.

In their highly successful intervention in TXU Corporation's (the Texas power utility) leveraged buyout negotiations (the largest LBO ever) obtaining TXU's commitment for major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from their coal-fired power plants and in limiting their construction altogether, The Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have shown what an engaged environmental community can do to offset the influence of vested interests.

Amtrak needs help. It's time for all of us to get "All Aboard!"