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Opinion: Obama gets behind intercity rail system

(The following column by Douglas Turner appeared on the Buffalo News website on March 2, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Reversing more than three decades of neglect, even attempted bureaucratic suffocation, President Obama has placed the White House strongly behind Amtrak and a national intercity rail passenger system.

In one month, Obama has proposed sending $13 billion into the cause. And if Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, has her way, upstate New York should get a good share of it.

Slaughter’s goal is what aides call “a third track” dedicated to passenger rail running 300 miles from Buffalo-Niagara to Albany along the current CSX right of way.

The economic stimulus plan contains $8 billion for engineering, tracks, passenger cars and other infrastructure for intercity rail. This money should be spent in the next three to four years.

Last week, Obama proposed spending an additional $5 billion for high-speed passenger rail in his 2010 federal budget outline.

This is a big shift from the policies of all presidents going back to Republican Gerald R. Ford. Obama is the first president since Richard Nixon who has truly urban roots.

Literally hundreds of trains run in and out of Chicago weekdays. Its prosperity, as Buffalo’s economy once did, sprang from railroading.

Amtrak and interurban passengers are Obama voters — upscale commuters, students, the poor, elderly and minorities — folks who either choose to leave the car at home, or who can’t afford one.

The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, couldn’t have been less interested. Clinton lined up with the forces (and campaign donors) arrayed against intercity rail and mass transit: big oil, highway contractors and the automakers.

Clinton unceremoniously killed every pro-rail proposal made by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N. Y., when he was public works chairman.

President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress tried to starve Amtrak to death. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is Amtrak’s most dedicated congressional foe. His phony excuse is that Amtrak is subsidized — as though the airlines and truckers are not.

How far down the road the Obama money actually moves high-speed passenger rail from the drawing boards to actual construction depends on how quickly states react with firm plans.

New York has one advantage, said David Johnson, spokesman for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, in that there is room for a passenger line on the Buffalo-Albany CSX route.

Another advantage is that Slaughter chairs the powerful House Rules Committee and is part of the leadership team of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Slaughter has placed the passenger rail corridor high on the agenda of the new bipartisan Upstate New York Caucus, which she formed last month.

Slaughter says that “with improved service reliability, frequency and reduced travel time, it is anticipated that a new high-speed rail line would create new ridership markets directly benefiting upstate New York’s universities, technical centers, tourist destinations and economy.”

Slaughter’s been busy. She hosted a meeting between stakeholders and House Public Works Chairman Jim Oberstar, and another between caucus members and Gov. David A. Paterson’s office, CSX and Amtrak, and lobbied Transportation Secretary Ray La-Hood on upstate rail.

The rail corridor “has been studied to death,” said a Slaughter aide. “It’s time to get moving.”

Slaughter and the caucus can be a crucial counterbalance against efforts by New York City to grab all of the state’s rail money.

Monday, March 2, 2009

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