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Railroads receive critical support

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Two congressional resolutions, passed by veto-proof margins, supporting and expanding Amtrak with billions of dollars, signal unprecedented support for trains and public transportation.

Steve Vogel, president of the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers, sees the two House resolutions passed in June as part of a great, "turning of the tide."

"People are being persuaded by gas prices," said Vogel, "People are discovering there are alternatives to burning fuel and sitting in traffic ... we were hopeful that this day would come."

One of the bills, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 311 to 104, with all of Georgia's Democratic Congressmen and a couple of the state's Republicans voting "yea," has the federal government funding 80 percent of capital investment projects. According to Vogel, the 80-to-20, federal-to-state funding ratio puts rail projects on par with road projects.

"Basically," he said, "any state that could come up with the 20 percent could apply for the 80 percent grant. It could have a long-term affect. It would mean we would have fewer hoops to jump through [in finding funding for rail projects]."

The bill also reauthorizes Amtrak for six years. For Vogel, that move alone represents a major shift.

"Amtrak has always sort of jogged along, one year at a time, because that's all anybody would commit to. Six years? That's never happened before. And what we're seeing is happening with veto-proof margins," Vogel said.

The federal move matches two state developments ,which dramatically shifted Georgia's transportation landscape: In April, the Georgia Department of Transportation, under new leadership, committed itself to pushing forward on commuter rail; In June, Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican from rural Georgia who was not seen as a 'railfan' and who had opposed funding railroads, came out in support of GDOT's commuter rail plan. The governor cited gas prices as a reason to support alternative means of transportation.

For some Republicans, though, railroad projects represent the worst of liberalism. Some conservatives saw the two Amtrak bills in Congress as a huge expansion of an ongoing and seemingly endless waste of taxpayers' money. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, opposed the more than $15 billion dedicated to Amtrak, calling that the "costliest bailout in Amtrak's 40 years of federal subsidies."

Ronald D. Utt, writing against a railroad bill on behalf of the think-tank, said, "since Amtrak's inception in 1970, the annual business-as-usual bailout has allowed it to squander more than $30 billion in taxpayer money for the benefit of a tiny fraction of the travelgoing public and its overpaid workforce."

Congressional opinions on public transportation have, traditionally, fallen along party lines for Georgia's delegation to D.C.

President George W. Bush and the Republican-dominated Congress, with the solid backing of Georgia's Republican representatives, have cut Amtrak's funding from an annual $1.3 billion, to about 800 or 900 million, according to Steve Kuni, a consultant with RailSouth, LLC.

"They were basically forcing Amtrak into shutting down major portions of their operations," Kuni said. "They just didn't want to spend the money. They wanted to put all the money into the war, into Iraq."

Kuni said a joke, going around Congress, suggested Amtrak was going to be re-named "Iraqtrak," so Republicans would support it.

Both of June's Amtrak bills, though, were passed with a number of Republican votes, even though the president promised a veto.

"A lot of Republicans," Vogel said, "got on that bandwagon. I think gas prices are making us do what we should have been doing all along."

One Georgia Republican who crossed the aisle to vote for the two Amtrak bills is Lynn Westmoreland. Called the "most conservative congressman of 2007," Westmoreland gave five speeches on the House floor in April, May and June, lambasting the Democrats' lack of an energy policy and promoting drilling for oil in Alaska and the continental shelf. But in June, in between speeches, Westmoreland voted to give billions to Amtrak.

"There probably is a turning of the tide," said Brian Robinson, Westmoreland's deputy chief of staff. "The congressman does see, with the high price of fuel, that trains are always going to be a part of how we get people from point A to point B, and freight, too, for that matter. But maybe it'll be an even bigger part than we had imagined."

Robinson said Westmoreland would even like to see an Amtrak line running from Atlanta to Washington and would like to see Amtrak become a highly developed, first class system. Robinson said Westmoreland "thinks that, in the future, it's going to play an important role in Georgia."