Amtrak rail service in America has spent decades in a bureaucratic limbo, fighting for its life in face of incessant demands by Republican administrations that long distance routes be eliminated while defenders such as the Rail Passengers Association were hard pressed to secure even basic improvements in service.
The passage of Congress’ recent Infrastructure Jobs and Investment Act finally breathes new life into passenger rail service in America.
It also poses a political question: Will the Democrats who advocated for Amtrak (only a handful of House Republicans voted “yea” on infrastructure) find a way to “sell” to the public what will be substantial improvements in public services?
Washington’s congressional delegation is trying. Witness a recent joint appearance by Representatives Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen (D‑WA-01 and D‑WA-02) at the Trooper Sean M. O’Connell Bridge on Interstate 5 at Burlington.
Its goal: To show what DelBene described as “a substantial improvement in services to the American people.”
Washington has, at last count, four hundred and sixteen bridges in poor condition. Exhibit A: The I‑5 bridge at Burlington, which collapsed into the Skagit River after being struck by a truck eight years ago.
The state is getting $121 million in FY 2022 under the infrastructure plan, $605 million in the next five years in formula funding to repair and revitalize bridges.
Interstate 5 dates from the 1960s, like much of the state’s road system. The package passed by Congress “will help us build the infrastructure to carry us through the next ffity years and beyond,” in Larsen’s words.
As the infrastructure bill was put together, Amtrak was a pet cause of Senators Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, and Jon Tester, D‑Montana. The infrastructure package contains $22 billion to revitalize the nation’s passenger rail system. Cantwell announced last week that two new ALC-42 locomotives will power the Empire Builder, the beloved Seattle-Chicago long distance route.
I first saw peaks of Glacier National Park from the Empire Builder as a kid, later took the train home from college.
No sight in North America is more stirring than first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains as you travel west across the Great Plains of Montana.
The infrastructure package will replace aging passenger cars on both the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight (often nicknamed the Starlate), which links Washington with California. More comfortable cars will be accompanied by, hopefully, better food on the train.
The revitalization of Amtrak has also encouraged our region to think big.
Governor Jay Inslee and British Columbia Premier John Horgan have jointly dreamed of ultra high speed rail service in the corridor from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, B.C. The Democrats’ Move Ahead Washington transportation package in the Legislature gives hope for federal-state-provincial cooperation (along with that of the Canadian government) to make it happen.
Cantwell was out with news last week of what will be a tenfold increase in electric vehicle charging stations over the next five years.
The state currently has 1,600. Washington gets $10.4 million in FY 2022, $71 million over the next five years, and is eligible to tap into $2.5 billion that Congress allocated for an electric vehicle charging program.
The beneficiaries: Motorists who will save thousands of dollars and help the planet by powering vehicles with electricity rather than gasoline.
The infrastructure package, and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, represent initiatives that Republicans couldn’t get passed, or fought like hell, that make a difference in peoples’ lives. But Democrats have been repeatedly ineffective taking their case to the voters. They’ve taken massive “shellackings” (Barack Obama’s phrase) in mid-term elections of 1994, 2010 and 2014.
Only in 1998, with public reaction to the Gingrich Congress and Clinton impeachment, did the party make marginal gains when occupying the White House.
Of course, the Biden Administration must find means to rescue key elements of Build Back Better. It must do a far better job of what Obama called ‘splainin’.
Are Americans aware of the childcare relief, and preschool programs, that are heart and soul of the program?
Nope, and the nation’s big media outlets are doing a frightful job of informing them. The centerpiece of political reporting, not just on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox cable channel, is inflation and the President’s falling poll ratings.
Okay, criminal deeds of the Trump regime follow the commercial break. But actual problem-solving, and benefits to peoples’ lives, get short shrift.
I dozed off when President Biden made a pitch for electric vehicles earlier this week. The President’s scripted selling jobs need a retrofit even more than Amtrak’s aging passenger cars.
The Cabinet, save for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is colossally underutilized. Its members must spend far more time in the field.
The Obama administration took a stab at selling its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package on a sunny day at Discovery Park nearly thirteen years ago. We made out well, thanks to “shovel ready” projects.
The money sped removal of two aged, fish-blocking dams on the Elwha River, a mighty waterway of the Olympic Peninsula. The long-delayed cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation received a cash infusion. The area’s Republican congressman, Doc Hastings, had, of course, voted against the measure.
Even with a glorious backdrop – a pair of bald eagles were circling far overhead – U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wasn’t fully versed on what he was selling. Nobody was there to explain that eagles would again be feeding on Chinook salmon carcasses in the Elwha or note that Hanford has the nation’s highest concentration of high-level nuclear waste.
The Democrats need to step up. Progressive activists on Twitter need to stop complaining long enough to laud what has been accomplished.
The lesson appears to have taken hold among lawmakers from this Washington. The urgent need for messaging is in the “other” Washington.
The Empire Builder is not just a train, but a model.