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Bush's Amtrak privatization plan smacks of more 'crony capitalism'

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Bush administration and Amtrak recently reached a financial deal to allow the passenger train service to continue operating. But looming over that agreement is the administrationís proposal to eliminate rail passenger service in many parts of the country and turn over federal funds used for rail passenger service to private contractors who are campaign contributors and would cherry pick the most profitable routes, according to a Public Citizen analysis.

Citing the rail passenger carrierís struggling finances, the administration has called for eliminating federal funds for Amtrak, farming intercity routes out to private companies and divesting the carrier from ownership of stations and tracks. Lawmakers this week are scheduled to discuss a supplemental spending bill that includes $205 million for Amtrak. Public Citizen urges lawmakers to keep the Amtrak money in the measure.

Amtrak does not make a profit. Nor does any other rail passenger system in the world. What Amtrak does do is allow hundreds of thousands of commuters and other rail passengers to get to work without cramming the roadways with hundreds of thousands of cars. By putting the routes at risk through a privatization scheme, the administration is inviting dirtier air, increased fuel consumption and longer commutes. Drilling for oil in Alaskaís pristine wilderness is a Bush administration priority; encouraging efficient mass transportation isnít.

"The administrationís Amtrak proposal resembles other Bush agenda items, particularly energy policy, in that it appears to be heavily influenced by generous campaign contributions made by corporate cronies close to the administration," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizenís Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

The administrationís proposal is nearly identical to proposals pushed by rail industry-backed lobbyists and think tanks, particularly a privatization plan put out by the conservative Discovery Institute in 1995. When Congress established an Amtrak Reform Council in the mid-1990s, its membership was stacked with anti-Amtrak voices, including the president of the Discovery Institute. The councilís plan, released earlier this year, closely followed the Discovery Instituteís and subsequently served as the basis for recommendations outlined by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

The Public Citizen analysis tracks how architects of Amtrak privatization are lobbyists for or have close business ties with rail interests who stand to profit from Amtrakís privatization, including the National Rail Construction and Maintenance Association, and Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Many of those interests provided tens of thousands of dollars in hard money contributions to Republican campaigns in the 2000 election cycle. Union Pacific, one of the largest freight railroads -- and whose corporate board formerly included Vice President Dick Cheney -- contributed more than three-quarters of a million dollars to Republican campaigns in the last election cycle. This year alone, the nationís leading freight railroads, some of whom stand to benefit if passenger rail is taken off their freight lines, have contributed more than a half-million dollars to the Republican National Committee.

"It is so very, very painfully clear to the public right now that corporations and their leading executives will rush to cut corners, cook books and do whatever else possible to enrich a mere handful of powerful tycoons," said Hauter. "Rail passenger service is just that -- a service. It should be run efficiently and safely for the good of the communities it serves. It should not be held to a naked standard of profitability and then, for failing to attain an unrealistic goal, be thrown to corporate cannibals hungry for public subsidies and willing to put profits before people. Amtrak needs to protected and strengthened, not gutted."

Thursday, July 18, 2002

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