Published on Thursday, December 15, 2005 by the Baltimore Sun

Cronyism Strikes Again
by Edward Wytkind

Here we go again. President Bush puts highly unqualified political supporters in charge of a vital public service, and Americans pay the price.

But this time it isn't the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It's our national passenger railroad - Amtrak.

Amtrak's directors, appointed by the Bush administration based on cronyism, not competence, are shirking their responsibilities and dismantling - through outsourcing and privatization schemes - the very rail company they are charged with strengthening. If we don't stop this runaway train, millions of passengers will lose vital rail service along the Northeast Corridor and across America.

Defying the wishes of a bipartisan Congress, Amtrak board members are pushing a disastrous "reorganization" plan that would dismantle the rail carrier, abandon passengers, dump billions of dollars in costs onto Maryland and other states and allow profit-driven speculators to cherry-pick Amtrak's most prized assets. Other than the White House and its handpicked Amtrak board, few are for this plan.

The Bush administration wants to eliminate federal funding for Amtrak, and the Amtrak board of directors wants to separate the Northeast Corridor from the rest of the network and open the system up to competition/privatization.

The current board chairman, David M. Laney, a Texas attorney, sits at the helm of Amtrak after raising more than $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Another board member's qualification to serve as fiduciary for a multibillion-dollar passenger railroad is his experience as the CEO of Kmart and the Museum Co., both of which ended up in bankruptcy. Undoubtedly, Floyd Hall's $360,000 in "soft money" contributions to the Bush-Cheney machine since 2000 did not hurt, either.

The third private-sector member, Bush-booster Enrique Sosa, told Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey in June 2004 that he had never ridden on an Amtrak train before his appointment.

Meanwhile, the board has operated without a quorum for several years, casting grave doubt on the legitimacy, if not the legality, of its actions, the most recent of which was the firing of CEO David L. Gunn, a 40-year rail professional. We had strong differences with Mr. Gunn's labor-management practices, but he has forgotten more about passenger rail than the three private-sector Amtrak board members combined have ever known. Mr. Gunn was fired because he refused to take a blood oath to carry out the "kill Amtrak from within" strategy.

Key Republicans are also fed up. House Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio recently called the situation "pathetic" and "such a mess that I have heard it said that you couldn't think up a hypothetical case this loony if you tried."

This would be laughable if the travel needs of 25 million passengers (including 2 million Marylanders), the jobs of 20,000 dedicated Amtrak employees (including 2,600 Marylanders) and the health of our transportation system were not at risk.

Cronyism is leading Amtrak over a cliff. The White House and its Amtrak board want to emulate the British rail privatization debacle. That catastrophe caused years of rampant delays, steep fare increases, higher accident and injury rates, and apoplectic passengers. The British government had to end this half-baked scheme and reportedly could face a $40 billion tab - $10 billion more than we've spent on Amtrak in 35 years - to clean up the mess.

We need a clear-eyed look at Amtrak. Every industrial country needs a strong national passenger rail system to be competitive, and all provide subsidies because it is in the national interest - just as the U.S. government rightly subsidizes our mass transit, highway, aviation and waterway systems.

Congress recognizes this, which is why the Senate recently voted 93-6 to authorize $11.6 billion for Amtrak over the next six years, and why lawmakers rejected the administration's zero budget in 2006, instead appropriating $1.3 billion this year. These actions give the railroad, passengers and employees renewed prospects for upgrading service, equipment and infrastructure, addressing overdue maintenance and improving safety and security.

So why is the Amtrak board trying to flout reality and the bipartisan will of Congress? Perhaps it has something to do with the administration's five-year pattern of making public assets instruments of private gain. Just as Dick Cheney's Halliburton has made billions off the Iraq war, maybe they want to let their friends profit from Amtrak's breakup. Instead of blocking this plan, as responsible stewards of Amtrak would, the board has embraced it.

The story of the current Amtrak board is a civics lesson about how it matters whom the president entrusts with managing critical public services. Congress must stop this out-of-control Amtrak board before 25 million travelers become the latest victims of cronyism run amok in the Bush administration.

Edward Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

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