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North American Railroad Passenger Association Analyzes AMTRAK Budget

Congress Slides Off The Rails

The National Association of Railroad Passengers analyzes the $1.315 billion 2006 Amtrak Appropriation and finds it "respectable" but opposes a number of provisions.

According to the Association: The conference report, which President Bush is likely to sign into law, effectively forbids Amtrak from offering "after March 1, 2006,.a discounted fare of more than 50% off the normal, peak fare."

The report also has an $8.3 million earmark to force dramatic growth in "carload shipments of premium temperature-controlled express," although Amtrak considers this business a money loser, obstacle to good schedules and on-time performance, and unnecessary cause of ill will between Amtrak and the freight railroads.

At first blush, one might ask:

Has Capitol Hill heard of internet specials, commonly used by many companies both to move otherwise unsold product and to attract brand loyalty among the next generation of consumersinternet-savvy teen-agers who watch carefully for great deals? (The impact of the above language actually could be much broader than just on internet fares.)

Does anyone on the Hill realize how absurd it looks for members of Congress to lecture Amtrak on becoming more businesslike and then turn around and "micromismanage" Amtrak like this?

Actually, provisions like the two described above typically are the work of one or a small number of key legislators. Most members can't read the huge bills they vote on, and most members have not read page A11 of the NYT for Saturday after Thanksgiving.

So it falls to you to make your legislators aware of these problems in the bill. You also can point out to them that micromanaging by Congress shifts responsibility for Amtrak's financial performance from Amtrak to Capitol Hillboth in terms of specific results from specific orders, but also by making it harder for Amtrak to attract the best talent. No one wants to be micromismanaged.

Amtrak also figured in the lead story of the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, a piece about politics in general, not about transportation: "The GOP and the Sandbox: I wonder Where My Party's Headed," by Douglas MacKinnon, press secretary to former Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), and "also a former White House and Pentagon official."

MacKinnon writes: "Over the last two years, I've lost count of how many Republicans have said to me, 'We have become what we defeated. Arrogance and a sense of entitlement now permeate much of our party.' An example of that arrogance was Rep. Ernest Istook's recent 'punishment' of 21 fellow Republicans who dared to ignore his warnings and voted to support funding for Amtrak, an entity that Istook despises. As chairman of the House subcommittee on transportation, treasury and independent agencies, the Oklahoma Republican took it upon himself to single-handedly eliminate or drastically reduce money in an omnibus bill that was destined for these members' districts. In other words, in order to teach GOP lawmakers who would defy his grand edicts a 'lesson,' I took chose to punish their constituents. Little wonder that no one seems more disillusioned than the party's conservative wing." Read more of the article.

In the printed newspaper, the page B4 continuation (headlined: "The Voters Want Leadership, Not Name Calling") has a big picture of Istook with this caption: "Rep. Ernest Istook punished 21 fellow GOP lawmakers for ignoring his wishes on a vote. No wonder voters are disillusioned, the author says."