Gov. Kulongoski makes the right call to keep popular Amtrak Cascades running

There was a time when America understood capital investment. As our capital infrastructure deteriorates, it's time that we relearned the lesson.

We have a wrongly focused debate in Congress about the future of a national passenger rail system. This debate obscures America's need for a viable passenger rail network. The congestion we are breeding in corridors on both coasts of the nation is prime territory for rail.

The impediment to getting serious about rail is the question of subsidy. Some lawmakers believe that Amtrak should live without federal subsidy. But all forms of transportation - autos, planes, waterborne vessels - are subsidized.

Population corridor routes are Amtrak's best revenue producers. Those include the Boston-Washington, D.C., run in the East, the San Francisco-San Diego corridor and the Seattle-Eugene route.

The Amtrak Cascades, which serves the Willamette Valley as well as Pugetopolis, is a success story. Total annual ridership in the Seattle-Eugene corridor is close to 1 million passengers. That number includes the Coast Starlight as well as the Cascades train and Amtrak's Willamette Valley bus service. The Coast Starlight is one of the nation's most popular long-distance passenger trains.

It was decidedly good news last week that Gov. Ted Kulongoski found the resources for Oregon to fulfill its agreement to invest in rail trackage to ease congestion on Union Pacific lines. That investment was essential to keeping the Amtrak Cascades running past this month.

Another sort of lesson about rail's importance was on display this summer. Last weekend marked the end of the run for the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train, with almost 18,000 passengers carried. The entire run had 21,000 seats to sell, so that ridership number is quite impressive. In the last few weekends, the Explorer was running at 99 percent of capacity.

The Lewis and Clark Explorer has had an enormous economic and cultural impact on Astoria and the surrounding region. All of those passengers could have chosen to drive, but they did not. In fact, the preponderance of passengers were lured by the opportunity to see a new part of the world, a portion of the lower Columbia River that only can be seen from this rail route.

The route between Kelso-Longview, Wash., and Seattle is not classified as one of the great scenic trips, even though the passage along Puget Sound can be breathtaking. Travelers choose the Amtrak Cascades as a way to get to Seattle because of the horrendous congestion on Interstate 5.

The ideologues who want to quibble over a subsidy for Amtrak forget that this is one of the very few federal subsidies that benefits average Americans by making an aspect of their life more comfortable.

It is time to get real about passenger rail. Oregon's Sen. Gordon Smith knows that. We look forward to his leadership on this topic.


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