Amtrak's Empire Builder in Montana
Amtrak's Empire Builder in Montana , heading eastbound at Two Medicine Trestle (Photo: Loco Steve, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

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.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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One reply on “Democrats’ legislative wins won’t resonate unless they get better at framing, storytelling”

  1. I want to high­ly com­pli­ment Joel Con­nel­ly for his well writ­ten, detailed and infor­ma­tive arti­cle. It helps so much to be aware of the progress and out­comes of our con­cert­ed pro­gres­sive efforts and wit­ness the out­comes that will (and do) make a real dif­fer­ence in laws and poli­cies and there­fore improv­ing or safe­guard­ing the lives of our peo­ple, com­mu­ni­ties, and state.

    Thank you for keep­ing us edu­cat­ed and informed on all the awe­some positive
    steps we are mak­ing and the encour­age­ment to keep mov­ing forward.

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