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Amtrak, redistricting: Unrelated failures

By Staff
Nov. 11, 2001
Let's clear up one fact about Amtrak. The national passenger rail system was in deep financial trouble long before Sept. 11.
The irony is that, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and partly because of a new fear of flying, Amtrak was drawing more passengers even though development of southeastern routes was delayed. The system just wasn't attracting enough money to meet a congressional mandate of financial self-sufficiency by Dec. 2, 2002.
Last week, meeting in Washington, the Amtrak Reform Council headed by Meridian's Gil Carmichael made a wrenching decision on a 6-5 vote that forces Amtrak to plan its own liquidation. The council saw the light at the end of the tunnel and it turned out to be the on-coming train of financial ruin.
The council voted that Amtrak as currently structured and managed would fail to meet its mandate and a majority of its members evidently decided it was time to call a halt to the bleeding.
This does not mean the trains will stop running, but it does mean Amtrak as it is known today will likely cease to exist.
The entire future of passenger rail travel in the United States is at stake, and that includes routes, schedules and stations, equipment, personnel and the entire concept that Amtrak could eventually make it as a quasi-private business. It won't make it as a private business and old-line railroaders all over the country are probably thinking, "I told you so."
The costly experiment failed. Congress must now decide whether a national passenger rail system owned and operated by the federal government with, perhaps, some private, local, or state money is the best option in a transportation system already heavily-subsidized by taxpayers. My own view as a die hard train fan is that Congress needs to examine very carefully the "big government" implications and costs of running a nationalized train system.
During three instructive years with the U.S. Department of Transportation, I learned that passenger transportation works best when it takes people from where they are, to where they want to go, when they want to make the trip, at a price they can afford. No mass transit system today meets all four of these tests without heavy infusions of taxpayers' money, not even the huge and very efficient New York City system that moves millions of people every day.
The same principles hold for Amtrak, whose board has been unable to manage effectively through the financial wreckage and salvage a passenger rail service that was envisioned as becoming self-supporting as early as 1975. If it truly wants to restructure passenger train service in America, Congress is going to have to, first, dissolve the system and fire the current Amtrak board of directors.
Redistricting episode: Could it be any worse?
Depending on which court takes jurisdiction, it may be that the Mississippi Legislature has done East Mississippi a great favor by failing to pass a redistricting plan.
The plan adopted by the House was a great example of political partisanship at its worst. There was no legitimate hint of fairness in a plan that put most of Lauderdale County in a district with the Coast.
For all of the logic that went into the House plan, Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, would have been better off to just throw some strands of wet spaghetti against a map of Mississippi and trace the lines they made.
Look for efforts to be made in the next 10 days or so to either call the Legislature back into session for one more shot at reaching an agreement (that is, put more political pressure on Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck to cave in) or to expedite the legal maneuvering.
One suit was filed in Hinds County Chancery Court and another in U.S. District Court. Two recent rulings give advocates of the federal court route hope jurisdiction over redistricting plans in Texas and Alabama was taken by federal courts.
The state House, on the other hand, was way too heavy-handed and overly partisan for the good of the state.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3213, or e-mail him at bbynum@themeridianstar.com.

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