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Coastal Elites are Coming for Your Trains
July 2, 2021 by Jim Mathews

In April I warned all of you that a well-funded and organized attack on passenger rail was taking shape in Washington, DC. This week we saw another salvo fired in this onslaught: the prominent economist Steven Rattner – the guy from the Obama Administration credited with saving the U.S. auto industry – gets prime space in the New York Times op-ed section to make a smug nostalgia-infused argument against passenger-rail investment. Then he makes the rounds on the morning TV news talk shows to amplify the point, telling Morning Joe this morning that spending anything on trains outside the Northeast Corridor is a waste.

Smaller rural stops got turned into the punch-line of the joke...again. Like Politico’s Mike Grunwald before him, Rattner adopts an air of coastal elite smugness when he asks sarcastically, “Who wants to alight from a train in Kingman, Ariz. (population 31,013) at 1:30 a.m.?”

Here’s your answer, Steve: families of tax-paying Amish travelers who have just as much right to move about the country as you do commuting from your well-appointed Wall Street office.

He offers up the endlessly repeated shibboleth about the “money-losing” long-distance routes, arguing that Amtrak is only worth appropriating funds when it no longer needs appropriated funds.

Let’s say it here again: Amtrak is an economic engine in the communities it serves, an investment of taxpayer dollars that produces prosperity and opportunity in hundreds of small towns and communities Rattner dismisses. It is entirely appropriate for the government to spend money to create the preconditions for economic success and private-capital investment. Spending a bit more than $60 million a year to make the Sunset Limited into a train running once per day in each direction will generate $211 million a year in annual returns to the communities served – taxpayers collecting their return on equity for their investment.

In fact, Amtrak’s long-distance network produces some $5 billion each year of economic benefit compared with the roughly $1 billion a year we spend on it.

Make no mistake, fellow Rail Passengers members and advocates. Since 2017 we’ve succeeded in turning the conversation around in official Washington about the value of Amtrak and passenger rail. Now, with many more dollars on the table, a collection of business interests focused on the Northeast Corridor is bankrolling a campaign to ensure that the NEC – and only the NEC – benefits from the Second Rail Revolution.

So far in 2021, only halfway through the year, 42 rail-related organizations have spent $6 million to lobby Congress in response to the White House’s push for more rail investment. Want to hazard a guess on how much of that can be tied to passenger-related lobbying? Only $240,000, and it comes from two groups: Virgin Hyperloop spent $150,000 and our friends at Brightline spent $90,000.

AAR, the freight-railroad lobby which only tolerates Amtrak as a Class I member so it can spend Amtrak’s dues money to sue it, has spent more than a million dollars in just the past 12 weeks alone.

Last Fall I had a lot of very difficult conversations with dues-paying members who told me they thought our work was about to get monumentally easier with the election of “Amtrak Joe” Biden to the White House. I cautioned then – and I’ll repeat today – that the opposite is true. With decades of passenger-rail advocacy on the cusp of achieving the kinds of wins we haven’t seen in a generation, the steely knives are out.

I hate to get backed into the frankly stupid family drama pitting the Northeast Corridor against the National Network. The NEC is the nation’s economic aorta and everyone knows it. We will always argue loudly and forcefully to maintain and expand the NEC, and to address its shameful backlog in state-of-good-repair work, especially the crucial Gateway and B&P tunnels. But it looks as if a small band of pro-NEC interests have adopted the disappointing tactic of attacking the National Network so as to ensure that the Gateway funding – imperiled for years under the Trump Administration – never again faces an existential threat.

My message to NEC supporters: we’re with you. But don’t do this. Don’t put us into this position. We need a truly “national” system of rail services tailored to the needs of the populations and travel patterns of the areas served. We don’t need to pit siblings against each other in a re-run of the Civil War.

For the rest of us, it’s obvious that we can’t afford to get complacent. We can’t afford to let others speak our piece. We can’t afford any of you easing up on your members of Congress.

You. Must. Keep. Fighting. Hard. NOW.

We at the Rail Passengers Association have punched above our weight for a few years now. I’m proud of our role in writing 17 pieces of pro-passenger legislation just in the last Congress alone. But the freight-rail industry spends an average of $25 million every single year lobbying against our interests. If you think we can match that, well, think again.

It feels a lot like 2017 to me today. I hope you feel that way too, and keep calling, emailing and writing to your Senators, your congressional representatives, your Mayors and local town planners with this very simple message: “I can’t write you a $50,000 campaign check. But I live here, I work here, I study here, and I vote here. This matters to me and I will vote accordingly."

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