Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

As Gas Prices Go Up, Record Ridership on the Rails

With fuel prices going up, and consumers feeling the squeeze at the pump and at the airport, ridership for Amtrak is on the rise. That's the good news. The bad news is that years of Republican attempts to drown Amtrak in the bathtub have resulted in it having difficulty to meet the growing demand.

Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues — all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month.

But the railroad, and its suppliers, have shrunk so much, largely because of financial constraints, that they would have difficulty growing quickly to meet the demand.

Many of the long-distance trains are already sold out for some days this summer. Want to take Amtrak’s daily Crescent train from New York to New Orleans? It is sold out on July 5, 6, 7 and 8. Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 5? The train is sold out, but Amtrak will sell you a bus ticket.

“We’re starting to bump up against our own capacity constraints,” said R. Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak.

The first point that needs to be made is that rail is a viable option. This is a lesson Europeans learned a long time ago. Portland has light rail, the Max, and Sound Transit is working to bring a viable light rail system to the Puget Sound Region. Both should be expanded. I've been to Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco and in every city I didn't use a car, I used rail. Los Angeles even started putting in light rail before I moved here 6 years ago. If you want to be a "major-league" city, get yourself a light rail system.

The other point that needs to be made is that our Democratic-controlled Congress should expand funding for commuter rail because with the cost of oil not coming down anytime soon, the airlines are going to continue nickel and diming passengers until only the rich can fly. With additional fees for checked baggage and United Airlines' recent announcement that it will require minimum stays, David Goldstein probably has it right:

Better carry a shitload of quarters with you the next time you fly folks, just in case the plane loses cabin pressure and you have to feed the goddamn coin slot on the oxygen mask.

Can pay toilets on airliners be far off? And if people are paying to use the toilet, don't you think they'll feel entitled to smoke in the lavatories? Who really wants to travel that way?

With the state of our fossil-fuel based economy the way it is, it's time to start thinking about other transit options, including building and/or expanding commuter rail. As we do that, perhaps Amtrak should be reconsidered as well.

And while we're at it, can Sound Transit please have the Sounder stop at the Olympia station for all those commuters in Thurston County who work in Seattle?


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