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The Amtrak Reform Commission's finest hour

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 8, 2001

Amtrak has been teetering on the brink of extinction for most of its thirty year life. During the Reagan years the Administration for eight consecutive budgets zeroed out Amtrak. Then, four years ago, the Congress told Amtrak that it had to work toward self-sufficiency or it might be dissolved. Congress then set up the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) to oversee Amtrak's financial situation, and to make recommendations that would lead to greater self-sufficiency. And Congress stipulated in the legislation establishing the ARC that if, at any time, it determined Amtrak could not be self-sufficient by the end of 2002, it is to make a finding toward that end. If that finding occurred, ARC should also present to the Congress and Amtrak a design for a new national rail passenger system.

Amtrak CapitolARC has already made one major recommendation and it is that Amtrak should no longer own and maintain the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. Amtrak, according to ARC's recommendation, should be in the business of hauling passengers, mail and express and should not have the enormous burden of operating and maintaining the Northeast Corridor around its neck.

It will require billions of dollars to bring that corridor up to a standard whereby the new high speed Acela trains can actually operate at the 150 mph for which they are designed. Some of the catenary (or overhead electric wires from which the locomotives derive their power) dates back to 1909 when the New Haven Railroad electrified its line between New York and New Haven, Conn. Much of the catenary between Washington and New York dates to the 1930s, when the Pennsylvania Railroad electrified its mainline between those two cities.

Ridership in Amtrak's Northeast Corridor has jumped considerably because the air shuttles between Washington and New York and Washington and Boston have been grounded along with the closure of Reagan National Airport. Nationwide business has also increased because a lot of people are still reluctant to fly. So what is the reaction of Amtrak to this unexpected development? It is lobbying to get the self-sufficiency requirement lifted and to abolish ARC, the only organization that provides meaningful oversight of an Amtrak that has lost some $25 billion since its inception in l971.

I have served as Vice Chairman of ARC from the beginning, first under New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman and then under former Federal Railroad Administrator Gil Carmichael. None of us gets paid for serving on ARC. If we attend a meeting out of town we get reimbursed according to the government rate, which means most of us lose money every time we travel with ARC.

Nevertheless the talented group of people who serve with ARC are pleased to do so. Most of us are dedicated to trying to maintain a national rail system that works. But most of us are also sensitive to the taxpayers who have been footing the bill for Amtrak for three decades now. Instead of running away from ARC's recommendations, and trying to get us abolished a year before our mandate runs out, Amtrak ought to welcome our advice and counsel. Instead it has aligned itself with the labor unions which have opposed ARC from day one.

The original representative for organized labor on ARC was Clarence Monin. A finer gentleman I have never met. He was studious and open-minded. When the unions found out that he was taking a reasonable approach to reform, they forced Monin off of ARC. Charlie Moneypenny was his replacement. Personally I like Charlie. He is a decent fellow who cares deeply about the plight of the railroad workers in America. But since the position of organized labor is that ARC should be abolished, he votes no on just about everything ARC proposes. It is rather like Larry Flynt serving on a Vatican Commission on Pornography. The two are not exactly compatible.

Still, ARC has a solid majority of Democrats and Republicans who support honest reform. I am amazed at their zeal and dedication and creativity. The group includes John Norquist, the Mayor of Milwaukee, known for his thinking outside the box; Lee Kling, who has a long history of involvement with transportation issues in Missouri (and who has been a prominent fundraiser for the Democratic party); Jim Coston, a prominent Chicago attorney who also has been involved in transportation issues for years; Nancy Rutledge Connery, who served on the blue ribbon Commission which former Republican Congressman Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania convened to take a hard look at transportation problems and who has credentials which would take up this entire column; Bruce Chapman, the head of the prestigious Discovery Institute in Seattle; transportation consultant Wendell Cox, with whom I frequently disagree on light rail but who nevertheless makes an important contribution to ARC. And businessman Chris Gleason, long involved with transportation, brings a keen sense of enterprise to the Council. I, of course, mentioned our Chairman, Gil Carmichael, who does such an able job and who has concerned himself with transportation issues for most of his life.

The Administration also has a representative on ARC, appointed by the Secretary of Transportation. I myself did transportation appropriations work in the U.S. Senate for six years and published a magazine on mass transit for seven years as well as serving six one-year terms on the Amtrak board of directors.

This is a creative team under the able executive directorship of Tom Till who has been involved with transportation issues for decades. Till has assembled a small but extremely able staff that has produced some remarkable analyses which Amtrak ought to welcome. Instead Amtrak often stonewalls the request that ARC has made for data.

If Amtrak succeeds in abolishing ARC, the taxpayer will be the loser. They just should not get by with what they are trying to do. Texas Representative Tom DeLay, the majority whip, and Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri have saved ARC from the efforts of the labor unions and others to kill us off. We only have a year to go. Let us hope that once again ARC will be saved, because this is its finest hour. This coming year is the time when ARC will make major recommendations to Congress and to Amtrak. It would be a criminal act if we are not permitted to finish the job at which most of us have now labored for the past four years.

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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