Sen. Gordon Smith should become a national authority on AmtrakYou can't see America from Washington, D.C. That is especially the case if you are running the nation's passenger railroad. Unlike his immediate predecessor, who never traveled the network, Amtrak President David Gunn is inspecting the line. He was in Oregon last weekend.

Gunn had some nice things to say about the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train, the Seattle-Eugene Cascades service and the prospect for major Northwest rail network upgrades prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

This is a critical moment in the national rail passenger discussion. With Amtrak's Gunn, Oregon Rail Division Executive Director Claudia Howells last week participated in that dialogue. Howells represented the states before Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which must fashion a passenger rail solution.

Howells gave the committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain, two messages. She said that operating the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train independently of Amtrak did not save money. Said Howells, there are some real challenges when you don't have the legal and logistical structure that Amtrak provides. This was important for McCain and his colleagues to hear, because there is a widespread notion back there that Amtrak is the high priced spread. Said Howells in an interview Monday, "We did (the Lewis and Clark Explorer independently and would not recommend it. We did not save any money by going with someone else."

President Bush has proposed that the states shoulder 50 percent of Amtrak's capital costs and portions of its operations. It is a bad joke. But since it is the president's bad joke Congress must deal with it. Sen. McCain's committee in particular must reckon with it.

Bush's foolish notion is a distraction. Instead of continuing to set a series of short-term deadlines for Amtrak's survival and proposing silly ideas, the president and Congress should be planning ahead, far ahead.

The Amtrak Cascades is a good example of the need to plan for capital investments. The public loves this train and so does Amtrak. To accommodate current and prospective ridership, Amtrak will need more equipment. That is especially the case for planning for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Mr. Gunn told The Oregonian that he'll use this opportunity to encourage Canadian investment in its rail network. Gunn, by the way, is a Canadian.

Capital equipment orders need to be placed well in advance. The longer the president and Congress fool around, the more difficult it will be to have a viable, adequate passenger rail corridor out here.

Oregon's Sen. Gordon Smith understands the importance of long-term rail capital decisions. He sits on McCain's committee. It's time for Sen. Smith to speak up and become a national authority on this issue.


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