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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Amtrak Awakens

Amtrak’s senior management team kept a low profile last month as Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) commuters spent four long days (May 9-12) waiting for Amtrak to repair what was originally reported to have been a minor derailment in an Amtrak-owned East River tunnel.

The federally-supported Amtrak’s ability to hide from public view during that crisis was aided by a quiet New York Congressional delegation, which said little as dozens of trains were canceled and LIRR commuters crammed into packed cars. Amtrak only pays attention to federal lawmakers, I wrote at the time. Recent events prove how true this is.

Rep. John Mica (R-Florida) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) have indicated they’ll introduce a bill this week in the U.S. House of Representatives that would transfer all Amtrak assets in the Northeast Corridor to the U.S. government. Created by Congress in 1970, Amtrak is an independently run corporation. Its preferred stock is owned by the U.S. government. Under the terms of this legislation, Congress would create a committee to solicit bids from private transportation companies to assess which entity is best equipped to succeed Amtrak as the operator of trains along the corridor, a 450-plus mile stretch extending to Boston from Washington, D.C. Amtrak reports that more than 35 percent of its travelers nationwide in 2010 took Northeast Corridor trains, a figure constituting 10.4 million of its 28.7 million total passengers. I should say at this point that the U.S. House proposal has little chance of becoming law because neither the Obama administration nor the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate is in any rush to privatize enterprises, which rely on federal funding.

Nonetheless, Amtrak leapt into action upon hearing this bill was in the works, with its spokesman telling The Wall Street Journal last week the Mica-Shuster proposal would “take Amtrak apart.”

Amtrak argues that, if it didn’t have to operate long-distance service trains to rural parts of the U.S., it could turn a profit. Federal taxpayers just have to support Amtrak’s operations, they believe, because it is in the public interest to keep unprofitable routes operating so someone in the middle of nowhere can take a train wherever they’d like to go. To support the status quo, Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman asked Congress in April 2011 for $2.2 billion in the next fiscal year to fund Amtrak’s operations.

“For some policymakers, the benefits of long-distance service aren’t clear, and in this political and economic climate, there will be more questions on this topic,” Mr. Boardman wrote, in his June 2011 Train of Thought column, which appears monthly in an Amtrak newsletter aimed at Amtrak employees. “Long-distance service provides the framework for national connectivity and mobility, connecting communities that don’t have the options that big metropolitan areas take for granted. Similarly, they provide people in underserved areas connections to other modes of transportation.”

Tired of being addressed in a condescending manner, is it any wonder ‘some policymakers’ want to transfer to the private-sector the most valuable piece of Mr. Boardman’s Amtrak portfolio and avert having to hear any more civics lessons from him?


Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: