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Don't Let Missouri's Amtrak Service End (column)
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        Posted on Sun, Apr. 14,

Don't let Missouri's cross-state passenger train die

Special to The Star

Although Missouri pays Amtrak just $6 million yearly (about 1 percent of the total transportation budget) for two daily round trips on the Kansas City-St. Louis corridor, state budget woes have targeted Missouri's minuscule rail passenger program for extinction.

We are a culture in which people expect myriad choices in all areas of consumption. Yet, passenger transportation is often limited to fly or drive.

It is now widely recognized that this is an undesirable situation, especially after the events of last September. The military establishment calls this a lack of necessary redundancy. Those entrusted with crafting transportation policy usually seem to feel that the fly/drive option is adequate and assume that all citizens can avail themselves of one or the other.

Unfortunately there is a significant segment of our population, due to health and other issues, for which the fly/drive system is a problem. There are many others that would simply like to have a reasonable alternative to the dubious pleasure of driving Interstate 70.

A January 2001 transportation poll conducted in Ohio found that 80 percent wanted the state to develop passenger-rail service, 65 percent said state funds should be used to attract federal passenger-rail funding and 53 percent thought the best way to relieve highway congestion was to improve all forms of transportation, including mass transit and high-speed rail.

The Ohio poll is consistent with recent polls conducted elsewhere, which show that Americans would like to see a more balanced transportation approach. To my knowledge, no such poll has been taken of Missourians, but I would be surprised if the results were substantially different.

It has also been shown that when provided with decent service, the public will support rail service with their travel dollars. Washington state has helped fund improvements on the Portland-Seattle corridor, and these have yielded a three-fold increase in patronage.

Missouri, however, proposes to go the opposite direction. It would cram more eggs in fewer baskets, eliminating support for rail-passenger service while promoting plans to spend more than $3 billion -- enough to run the current Amtrak service for 500 years -- to add two lanes to I-70.

Missouri is part of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a nine-state compact dedicated to the development of rail-passenger links. The St. Louis-Kansas City corridor is eligible for federal high-speed rail funds. To date there has been much talk but little actual support from the feds for the rail initiative but that could and should change.

As part of the current debate on transportation policy vis-a-vis Amtrak, several bills have been offered that would finally provide serious money in the form of federal matching funds.

The lack of money has been a serious deterrent for states wishing to improve rail-passenger links. Whereas states are currently on their own for rail projects, they can receive up to an 80 percent match for highways.

It would be a shame for Missouri to pull the plug on the Kansas City-St. Louis route now. When matching funds do become available, states with existing services will have a leg up on others. And it will happen.

There is today bipartisan support in Congress, and even conservative icon columnist George Will has publicly advocated federal funds for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative and other high-speed rail passenger programs. If Missouri isn't at the table, the money will be spent. It just won't be spent here.

If Missouri's cross-state passenger train link is allowed to die, it will end a part of our history that reaches back nearly a century and a half. It will terminate a service that many depend on. It will destroy the foundation upon which could be built a modern and attractive system, and for many years it will put Missouri at a disadvantage in competing with areas that have more enlightened transportation policies.

Oscar Wilde once described a cynic as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For Missouri to sacrifice the historic Kansas City-St. Louis transportation link in order to satisfy short-term budget needs ignores the long-term value provided by passenger-rail transportation, value that will surely be remembered long after the recession of 2002.

Wayne Copple is a member and past president of the Missouri-Kansas Rail Passenger Coalition. He is a member of the Washington, D.C., based National Association of Railroad Passengers and served three terms on the association's board of directors. He is a lifetime resident of Kansas City.

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