(The following is an opinion column from today's Boston Globe)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Train travel is finally becoming a third rail of politics. The first one to fry over it might be John McCain.
For years, McCain, in the comfort of cheap gasoline for autos and airplanes, made Amtrak a personal whipping boy. Despite the fact that governments in Western Europe and Asia zoomed far ahead of the United States by supporting high-speed trains to relieve congestion, promote tourism and now as we are coming to know, save the planet, McCain has spent considerable capital in denying the passenger rail system the capital to modernize.
In 2000, when he was chairman of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation committee, McCain killed $10 billion in capital funding for Amtrak. He denounced Amtrak as a symbol of government waste, claiming, "There's only two parts of the country that can support a viable rail system - the Northeast and the far West."
He made these claims though Amtrak investment had the support of several notable Republicans. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi warned that Amtrak "is guaranteed and doomed to failure if we don't give it an opportunity to succeed. If you don't have modern equipment, if you don't have the new fast trains, if you don't have a rapid rail system, it will not work."
Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services during President Bush's first term, was Amtrak chairman when McCain blocked the funding. Thompson said, "The traveling public are sending a distress call to escape our nation's endless traffic jams and airport gridlock."
Although Thompson claimed "remarkable progress in turning Amtrak around," despite a past where "it was not run like a business," McCain ignored the distress call. In 2001, then-Amtrak president George Warrington said the funding of rail in America was so bad, it was comparable to similar funding in Estonia and Tunisia.
McCain said, "Amtrak needs to make more progress before any further funding schemes are enacted," while at the same time calling any money for progress a "multibillion-dollar blank check." In 2002, McCain declared that "Amtrak should be restructured to eliminate its reliance on the American taxpayers and to allow for its privatization."
In 2003, McCain allowed that new Amtrak president David Gunn "increased efficiency rather dramatically." But McCain continued in years afterward to fight the capital improvements needed. McCain became a self-fulfilling prophet, making sure that Amtrak remained exactly what he feared it would be, "the albatross blocking the development of a program that actually meets the needs of the traveling public."
Suddenly, the traveling public is demanding the development of commuter and high-speed intercity rail. According to the American Public Transportation Association, light rail (streetcars) was up 10 percent in the first quarter of this year, commuter rail was up by 6 percent, and subways were up 4 percent (Boston subway travel was up by 9 percent).
The House and Senate have passed bills calling for new investments in passenger rail, creating the same federal incentives for states to invest in rail service, offering 80 cents for every 20 cents spent by the states. Barack Obama is a cosponsor of the Senate bill. Noting on his website that he is committed to the development of high speed rail, Obama said, "In many parts of the country, Amtrak is the only form of reliable transportation."
In the section of McCain's website called "reforming our transportation sector," there is no mention of rail. There is only his clean-car challenge to automakers, his $300 million prize to design battery cars, and enforcing only existing gas mileage standards. When The Washington Post reported on how President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget did not include a subsidy for Amtrak, would kill both $20 million for the next generation of high-speed rail, and $250 million for railroad rehabilitation, it quoted McCain as saying on television, "I'm glad the president is coming over with a very austere budget."
The luster of austerity is gone. Public transportation is becoming a real issue for the campaign trail. If so, McCain has all but handed Obama a golden spike to beat him over the head with.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.