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Gas prices soar while Amtrak withers

The last time Congress authorized Amtrak -- that was 10 years ago -- the price of crude oil was around $25 a barrel. When Amtrak's authorization expired five years ago, the price of crude was hovering around $23.

Now crude is $100, driving up prices on auto and airline travel, and everything else.

A decent national passenger railroad might have given hassled travelers more relief. But since 2002, the nation's passenger railroad system has been grudgingly financed year-to-year through the back door, with gimmick appropriations.

While crude prices skyrocketed, President Bush and a decade of Republican Congresses tried to let the Amtrak alternative to driving or flying wither on the vine.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., says accurately that "President Bush has aimed to simply shut down passenger rail in the United States."

The reason is that Bush and the GOP House, 1995-2006, have been awash in campaign gifts from the oil, express delivery, trucking, automobile and airline businesses whose profits might be hit a little if Amtrak service ascended to European or Japanese standards.

The Republican excuse, pushed hard by Sen. John McCain of Arizona and House GOP leaders, is that Amtrak ought to be making money and shouldn't be given federal subsidies.

Presidential candidate Clinton has it right when she says "no country in the world has ever developed and maintained a successful passenger railroad system without assistance from their national government."

Among these countries, according to the Nov. 4 issue of Parade Magazine, is Japan, which has developed a 360-mph train suspended inches above a guide rail by magnetic levitation.

A French prototype hit 357 mph.

A mag-lev train could cut the time from Buffalo to Albany to less than an hour from the existing five hours-plus.

High speed trains could link economically ailing upstate cities with the rest of the nation, aiding their recovery.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., 14 years ago proposed our government develop mag-lev technology. The idea was squelched by lobbyists, bureaucrats and the House GOP.

To set a new tone, Clinton is an original co-sponsor of a bill, approved 70-22, to reauthorize Amtrak for six years. Her bill bids to bury the fictions that America does not need Amtrak, and that it can ever become first rate without predictable subsidies.

The House Transportation Committee, now headed by a Democrat and an Amtrak supporter, Rep. James Oberstar, Minn., is preparing its six-year vision for the railroad. It will be ready next year.

In the meantime, the Democratic Congress is still struggling with a spending bill that actually puts cash in Amtrak's account.

That's for the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1. It will be for only $1.4 billion. This is just $100 million more than Amtrak gets now, a number far from the ambitions reflected by Clinton's six-year Amtrak plan.

For openers Amtrack needs $4 billion a year to update its rolling stock, most of which is at least 30 years old, improve trackage and aid state systems.

Albany, whether the leadership is Republican or Democratic, is even less involved in intercity rail.

The State DOT subsidizes the Albany-Montreal Amtrak line by $4 million a year. Nothing for other upstate trains, according to DOT. Why not?

The state invests another $47 million for fixing tracks, owned by private freight lines, but used by Amtrak trains. Those who endure travel on Amtrak's run from Buffalo to Albany/Renssalaer wonder where that money is going.

Despite these problems, Amtrak travel between New York and Buffalo grew by 5 percent this year. Nationally, patronage grew 10.8 percent. So the market is there.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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