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De-Railing Amtrak

As oil prices rise to historic levels, the US Senate voted yesterday to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. With proper planning, billions of gallons of oil will begin flowing shortly and we are told by President Bush that “This will ease our dependency on our foreign oil by up to a million barrels a day.”

The US Department of the Interior describes the 2,000-acre area to be drilled as “One small area in an immense region of Alaska.” and assures us that “Using state of the art technology” they can “Begin the environmentally responsible production of oil and gas.”

So to everyone who is worried about Caribou breeding grounds, and the destruction of a pristine ecological area, there is apparently nothing to worry about. And even if some Arctic Caribou are displaced, so what? Get over it, because it’s a small price to pay to move our energy hungry nation towards energy independence.

There’s only one slight problem with this plan, and that’s that there is a bigger whole in its logic than there used to be in the ozone layer.

If the administration thinks it’s in our country’s best interests to drill for oil in Alaska let’s not reflexively oppose it for enviromental reasons, let’s discuss it, but let’s also not pretend the reason to drill in a wilderness area is to make us energy independent because it won’t–nor will it lower gasoline prices. Drilling for more oil to become energy independent makes about as much sense as consuming more drugs to end an addiction. It might be fun while you’re doing it but it’s not going to end well.

I think it’s an important and worthwhile goal to move our country towards energy independence. And I believe George Bush when he says he came to Washington to work on big problems. In fact I really don’t see a bigger a problem for the future of our nation than solving our long-term energy and transportation problems. And while I do believe this problem can be solved opening up ANWR is not a thoughtfull or long-term solution.

What can make us more energy independent in the long-term is new thinking in transportation vehicles, infrastructure and systems, in the short term it is driving more fuel efficient vehicles and driving them less. So what strikes me as disingenuous about drilling in the Arctic is it’s being proposed at exactly the same time as the administration is planning to bankrupt Amtrak.

What’s this you say? With everything going on in the world it was easy to miss this story last week. But the administration didn’t allocate any money for Amtrak in next years budget. The inevitable result of this will bankrupt Amtrak which will lead to even worse rail service in the future, which if you have ridden Amtrak lately is hard to imagine.

The administration is right to be frustrated with Amtrak’s performance financially and otherwise. But they also need to take responsibility for Amtrak’s failures as well and come clean and acknowledge that passenger rail is a responsibility of government and not private enterprise.

If we are serious about reducing our need for foreign oil we would be thinking of ways to take people out of their cars and putting them in trains, not ways to encourage wasteful consumption which is the only way to explain our trend towards larger and more inefficient vehicles.

Funding rail service isn’t cheap but it does put things in perspective to point out that that Generals Motor’s advertising budget is about equal to the US government’s yearly investment in Amtrak.

Maybe if we added the equivalent of Ford’s marketing budget to the mix, we could talk about adding modern features to our trains like high-speed wireless Internet access, which are the types of features that will motivate people to take trains instead of figuring out how to scavenge parts to keep 28 year old trains, that break down frequently and rarely arrive on time, rolling.

If the administration was really serious about moving our country towards energy independence they would be making the case for the investment in affordable high-speed inter-city rail service as that can easily and quickly mitigate millions of auto trips a year while reducing the friction to our economy casued by congestion, which at billions a year, is not insubstantial.

It’s important to note that the ability to travel from city to city via rail isn’t just about reducing our dependance on foreign oil, as in the event of emergency it can quickly become a vital link in our nations transportation infrastructure.

When our nations air traffic ground to halt On September 11th, there was no question that it was in the best interest of the country to bail out the airline industry with billions of dollars in loans and subsidies. But where was the similar thinking about inter-city rail service?

Although there wasn’t an investment in rail infrastructure at the time, the reasons for doing so haven’t changed, which is one more reason why before we open ANWR for drilling we should be opening up a real dialogue, and start talking about the best ways to move our country away from our dependence on foreign oil.

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