The National Corridors Initiative, Inc.

James P. RePass - President & CEO
Phone:  617-269-5478

The Hon. John Robert Smith - Chairman

MA Office: 59 Gates Street, Boston, MA. 02127
CT Office, 8 Riverbend Drive, Mystic, CT, 06355
RI Office, 35 Terminal Road, Suite 210, Providence, RI. 02905

Fax (CT): 860-536-5482

January 28-29, 2008
St. Louis, Mo

The First Carmichael Conference
on Transportation

Comments of the Hon. John Robert Smith
Transportation Advocates: We Must Act Now!


The Carmichael Conference: Follow Up and Calls for Action

 

National Corridors Initiative Address at St. Louis, January 28, 2008:

Transportation Advocates: We Must Act Now!

By the Hon. John Robert Smith, former Chairman of the Board, Amtrak;
Mayor, Meridian, MS, and Chairman, the National Corridors Initiative

 

Delivered at the Carmichael Conference, January 28-29, 2008

First Appearing In NCI’s Destination:Freedom Weekly Newsletter
Vol. 9 No. 6 - February 11, 2008

 

[ Publisher’s Note: This is the second in a series of addresses--- last week’s was by Bob Crandall, former CEO of American Airline --- from the Carmichael Conference on the Future of American Transportation held January 28-29 at the Hyatt Regency, St. Louis, MO; Destination:Freedom will publish addresses from this important American conference each week, so that those who could not attend can also participate in the debate, and also benefit from the thoughts of the impressive list of American transportation leaders who did attend, and spoke to us. It is also our intention to collect the speeches, and presentations, into a single CD-ROM so that the proceedings can be more widely distributed. ]

 

I wish to thank Jim RePass for organizing this timely and critical conference and choosing to host us in this grand old lady of railroad’s golden age [St. Louis’ Union Station, now a Hyatt Regency Hotel]. I remember the first conversation I ever had with Jim. He telephoned me to say, “You’ve never heard of me and don’t know who I am, but we’re going to be best friends.” I had testified before Senate and House committees regarding Amtrak’s long-distance service through my hometown, Meridian, and that service’s impact on rural and small-town America. Jim recognized the importance of a coalition that would be composed of Democratic senators and congressmen in the densely populated northeast and their Republican counterparts in the Deep South. The Northeast Corridor had discovered it needed the long-distance system through states like Mississippi to survive on Capitol Hill. An interesting study could be made of the congressional salvation of Amtrak as it has played out with senators and congressman reaching out not only across the aisle separating their parties but across the geography separating their states.

I would also like to thank Gil Carmichael for serving as an inspiration not only for this conference but for many of us who are now engaged in seeking transportation solutions for our people. I truly regret that my dear friend, Gov. Michael Dukakis, could not be with us today in person, although we will bring him in by telephone later. He is a gentleman and a truly gifted transportation proponent. I first met Gov. Dukakis in 1998 when I was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Board. We two, together with then-Gov. Tommy Thompson and Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, formed the initial board, and the four of us served as the board for the first six to eight months of its existence before other members were added. I can honestly say that in the five years we spent together as board members, never once did partisanship rear its divisive head. We were engaged in providing the best passenger rail service possible for this country regardless of our parties’ positions.

When I arrived on the Amtrak board, Tom Downs had been forced out as president and CEO, and George Warrington was hired to fill that role. At that time, if you remember, Amtrak had been forced by Washington onto that infamously ill-conceived “glide path to self sufficiency”—a mandate to seek zero operational investment from the federal government—in essence to live out of a fare box, a feat no passenger rail system in the world truly achieves. Notice I said “invest.” You see, we “invest” in highways. We “invest” in airlines. But we “subsidize” railroads. When I first became chairman of the board, the annual “subsidy” for all Amtrak operations was less than the annual “investment” in removing road kill from our nation’s highways. Acela, this country’s first high-speed rail consist was rolled out and, although initial problems arose, Acela remains an extremely popular transportation option in the northeast. George Warrington moved on to New Jersey Transit, and I hired David Gunn, a real railroad man, a highly successful railroad operator, who created accurate and transparent accounting for Amtrak and who invested in a capital budget which returned the railroad to its state of good repair. David did all of this without sacrificing our long-distance trains, the backbone of the passenger rail system in this country.

To demonstrate the lack of understanding at the federal level at that time, of how Amtrak is critically integrated into the delivery of all passenger rail service, I will share this story. Shortly after coming on board, David and I were called to Washington, D.C. by Secretary Norm Mineta for what was to be a two-hour board meeting at the secretary’s office. Secretary Mineta had decided to decline the approval of a $100 million loan that Amtrak desperately needed to see its way to the end of the year. The secretary informed us if we could not make it without the $100 million loan, then shut Amtrak down. David said we could do that but we would not only lose all long-distance service but the entire northeast corridor would cease to operate as well—no electrified catenary, no dispatching; therefore, no Amtrak, no commuters, no freight. Needless to say, the meeting lasted somewhat longer than two hours, and I stayed in D.C. not for two hours but for one week, successfully negotiating a $100 million loan with the Department of Transportation.

I’ll show you what kind of man David is. I had come to D.C. with no change of clothes because the meeting was supposed to last only two hours. Therefore, every night David would wash my shirt, socks and underwear and return them to me the next morning for another round of negotiations. Under David’s leadership, ridership, revenue and on-time performance improved remarkably, and each following year has set new records-- all of this accomplished, I remind you, with an administration in the White House grossly underfunding Amtrak and its proposed budgets even to the point of zeroing Amtrak out. But there was a shift on Capitol Hill. Amtrak’s credibility with Congress had been restored. My senator, Trent Lott, and New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced Amtrak reauthorization and railroad infrastructure bonding bills. And, for all of his success, David was fired.

Now, Alex Kummant, Amtrak president and CEO, struggles to do much with little and has been most recently saddled with labor agreements for which insufficient revenue exists in 2009 to cover the cost. These labor agreements contain no work-rule changes sought by Amtrak. I remind you this presidential emergency board that constructed the settlement was appointed by the same administration that repeatedly recommends less than adequate funding levels for Amtrak. It sounds a lot like pharaoh’s order to “make bricks without straw.” But there is still hope. Senators Lott and Lautenberg have again won approval for reauthorization and bonding in the Senate. Chairman Oberstar assures me the House will pass similar bills. Then on to the appropriations battle.

This “Perils of Pauline” serial that is Amtrak’s continuing story line occurs simultaneously with highways that are overcrowded and highway trust funds in jeopardy, with airlines in meltdown, and all with the added layers of homeland security, an energy crisis and urgent calls for sane environmental choices in the face of a deteriorating planet. But out of crisis comes great opportunity. “Our unity as a nation is sustained by communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. Together, the unifying forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.” These words were spoken by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955. That is the last time we had a vision of what transportation investment means to this country. However, 53 years later, his words are still true. With reauthorization for rail, highway and air occurring concurrently and a new T bill ahead of us; with the presidential election upon us, with an engaged public concerned over increasing gas prices, global warming and threatened choices for transportation, I believe the confluence of these events provides unique timing for a new transportation vision.

I just arrived here from Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Conference of Mayors mid-winter meeting. Mayors are the most effective voice for our American cities on Capitol Hill, and transportation is about connecting from city center to city center. I see mayors of cities large and small energized and committed to address these issues. They are engaged in station development and addressing grade crossing concerns. Mayors see freight rail companies as important partners in economic development. I see states like Wisconsin, Illinois, California and North Carolina investing in all modes of transportation, including rail. I see freight railroads such as Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern embracing passenger traffic as a revenue source and an infrastructure partner. I see think tanks such as Reconnecting America convening the best minds in the transportation world to craft recommendations for our leaders. I see conferences such as this where we engage in open discussion and debate about our shared transportation future. All of these things give me great hope that we will finally see modes of transportation as feeding one another, not competing; as interconnected partners, not isolated silos unto themselves.

Consider this simple possibility—a citizen in Newton, Mississippi buys a ticket and boards a bus, his bag with him and a small container of La-Z-Boy recliners, made in his hometown, on the back of the same bus. Both passenger and freight travel to Meridian’s multi-modal station, where, still using the same ticket, that passenger and his bag board a higher-speed Amtrak Crescent, bound for the international airports in either Atlanta or New Orleans, with the container of La-Z-Boys on the same train. At either airport, he boards a jet bound for Orly Airport in Paris with the same ticket and, when he arrives, his bag is with him. What a novel concept.

The timing is right for this gathering, but if this conference is merely another convocation to puzzle over transportation’s navel and not act, then we have wasted time and energy. These issues are complex and daunting, but we must act and act now. Our children and grandchildren will hold us accountable. To fail them is to leave our great nation “a mere alliance of many separate parts.” This we cannot do.


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