- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

Splitting up Amtrak isn't the answer

I always enjoy The Washington Times because it is irreverent and quick and offers a serious alternative to inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom. However, your Feb. 24 story "Amtrak reaches end of the line" contains some serious goofs, starting with the headline of the article.

Amtrak is not in trouble because "each year … they need a little more government money." It is in trouble because it needs lots of money, but instead, it gets a fraction of that required to build up and operate a successful passenger rail system. Please don't tell me airlines and highways aren't subsidized. The highways have gotten $750 billion since 1970, and the airline system gets huge subsidies every single year ($15 billion this year alone, not counting the September 11 bailout). The suggestion that Congress should consider reducing rail subsidies "to a more reasonable level" is just fatuous, because the root cause of Amtrak's woes is a Congress that has failed to fund the national passenger rail system beyond the barest minimum every year.

The idea that a split-up rail network would somehow magically combine with the private sector or that a series of multi-state compacts would somehow yield better train service than the present system is, to any railroad insider, laughable. Amtrak has a tough enough time as it is with a unified operation. The thought of dividing responsibility and ownership, as the British rail system did with utterly disastrous results, is chilling.

Are all the Amtrak Reform Council's ideas wrong? No. But before tinkering with Amtrak's structure or blowing it up, government should seriously commit to funding the system not just the present system, which needs about $1.5 billion a year, but new high-speed corridors which will take about $2 billion a year for the next 20 years. Such improvements will produce vastly better passenger service for hundreds of cities and mitigate highway and airport congestion. In addition, we'll all benefit from lower freight shipping costs due to capacity improvements that will accrue not just to the passenger system, but to the freight railroads that own most of Amtrak's right-of-way.

If rail is such a good idea, why have we let Amtrak get so close to the edge? It's because Americans tend to wait until a crisis hits before taking action. It's neither the end of the line for Amtrak, nor does it have to be, but Amtrak has indeed been pushed to the brink. Instead of gleefully nudging Amtrak over the edge, Congress needs to fund it. While this railroad baby may not be perfect, let's not pitch it out when we change the bath water.


President and chief executive officer

The National Corridors Initiative

Providence, R.I.

No excuse for Nevada NIMBYism

I must disagree with Charles Rousseaux, who, in his Feb. 26 Commentary column "Nuclear waste parochialism," finds it "understandable" that Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman opposes President Bush's decision to authorize building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Radiation experts have determined that, standing in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, Mr. Goodman would be exposed to radiation dose rates 65 times higher than those at Yucca Mountain.

As the French, who get 80 percent of their energy from nuclear power, have demonstrated, the problem is political, not technological. Since the early 1980s, the French have combined radioactive waste with molten glass and placed the mixture in stainless steel cylinders, storing them in an underground building at a government installation until a permanent deep repository becomes available like Yucca Mountain.

Far from being a NIMBY nightmare, nuclear waste can actually be an energy resource. Why bury it when we can recycle it as others do? France also recycles its spent nuclear fuel, extracting the remaining plutonium and uranium from the spent fuel to make new reactor fuel. By doing so, France has been able to reduce its volume of nuclear waste to one-fifth its original size.

All energy technologies produce waste. Burning fossil fuels generates waste that cannot be contained, as nuclear waste is. Waste from fossil fuels is released into the environment and ultimately into our lungs. The danger of radioactive waste is minuscule compared to the real health risks posed by air pollution from fossil fuels, which the World Health Organization estimates causes 3 million deaths a year, with 15,000 deaths annually in the United States from coal particulates alone.

We have a choice. We can fear the imaginary dangers of nuclear power or deal with the real dangers of fossil fuel production. We should be splitting atoms and not hairs.



An effective way to solve the illegal immigrant problem

If Glenn Spencer's estimated number of illegal aliens 11 million is correct, the United States really faces a serious problem ("Activist warns of border war," Nation, Feb. 25). An effective way to deal with this problem is to ask Mexican authorities to assist us. Mexican border guards can stop Mexican and non-Mexican travelers, who have no legal papers, from entering the United States.

Last year, the United States had about 9,000 guards patrolling the southern border and some 400 guards on the northern border which is longer than the southern one. Still, we were unable to reduce the number of undocumented aliens entering the United States.

If the Mexican authorities would cooperate with the United States, the economies of both sides would benefit. The United States could save hundreds of million dollars each year by reducing, rather than increasing, the size of its southern-border patrols, and Mexico can keep its labor force at a level essential for its economic growth. Many illegal immigrants are productive workers, and they could prove to be the backbone of the Mexican economy.



Virginia taxes some burden

In your zeal to brand any and all taxes as evil, you once again run roughshod over logic and truth ("No new Virginia taxes," Feb. 26). You state that Virginia's "'revenue' stream is already at appallingly high levels." Compared to what? In relation to other states, Virginia's tax burden is hardly "appalling," ranking 38th, behind such famously liberal tax-and-spend states as Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Utah.

You say that "most Americans pay about a third of their annual income (often more, especially when FICA is factored in) to feed the Leviathan in Washington." Honestly, where do you get this stuff? A married couple would have to make over $500,000 to have this kind of tax liability hardly the income level of "most Americans." According to the Tax Foundation, the percentage of individuals' income that went to federal taxes in 2001 was 23.6 percent, and that includes FICA.

Oh, and I love that you consider school construction to be a "pet project." If building non-trailer classrooms isn't a legitimate function of government, is anything?



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