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Column: Saving passenger trains could be a small, but real, bipartisan step

With houses and trees in the background, a train runs alongside cliffs that descend to the ocean.
Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner travels along the bluffs in Del Mar, Calif.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

One of my favorite relatives growing up was my Aunt Minerva. She got me my first job, took the first crack at teaching me how to drive when I was 12, and helped pay for my books my freshman year in college.

She was equally supportive of my siblings, as well as cousins. When she died of cancer, a piece of us all went with her.

Funny thing is, although she had a big heart, I do not recall her ever saying, “I love you.” Generally speaking, that wasn’t something we heard in my family growing up, but it was a strange quirk considering she obviously loved us all very much. Instead, she made us chitterlings — a longtime staple in the Black community, although its genesis is less than pleasant.

Slave owners, looking to feed enslaved people as cheaply as possible, would provide the discarded parts of the pig as food. We’re talking the feet, the snout and the intestines (chitterlings). To prepare the latter for consumption, they first must be washed multiple times to rid the fatty flesh of fecal matter. They then are seasoned and boiled for hours. The smell — from cleaning to cooking — is awful, but the finished product is considered a soul food delicacy in many circles to this day.

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Dishes such as chitterlings, homemade tamales, jiaozi dumplings and challah aren’t simply about having something to eat. No one needs to labor over ingredients for hours just to have a meal. It’s about the connection that stems from the process itself — from la abuela to the Aunt Minerva in your life. Regardless of our backgrounds, we all have that dish made by that special someone that connects us to family, one that anchors us to community regardless of how far we sail.

This is a point many politicians fail to understand when it comes to debates over the funding of public services such as parks, PBS and the post office: Just as food is not just about nutritional value, not all benefits to society should solely be decided by a budget committee.

In America, capitalism encourages us to do the best we can for ourselves, but it’s public service that encourages us to stay connected to one another. It is the home-cooked meal that reminds us there are things other than turning a profit.

President Nixon and Congress didn’t take that into account in 1970 when they sought to rescue a railway system weakened by the ease of travel on new interstate highways and cheap airline tickets. The subsidy program they established (along with state and local assistance) wasn’t designed to sustain a public service for the good of the community. It was created to provide the system a softer landing as it descended into obsolescence.

And if not for the importance of rail in the Northeast Corridor for business travelers and members of Congress, train service might very well have gone the way of the telephone booth by now. There certainly isn’t anything in the language of the Rail Passenger Service Act, which gave birth to Amtrak, to suggest Congress viewed it as an essential part of the country’s future.

In fact, with Section 301 stating, “The Corporation shall be a for profit corporation,” one could make the case that legislators were placing it in hospice. Fifty years later, Amtrak has yet to turn a profit, but it is still alive and kicking — thankfully — despite President Trump’s attempts to slash federal subsidies in half.

In 2019, Amtrak reported a record 32.5 million passengers. It also reduced operating losses by nearly $400 million over the previous year. All positive steps. Unfortunately, the pandemic halted that progress, forcing Amtrak to come to Congress to ask for more funding just to stay afloat, while still being woefully behind on tens of billions of dollars in much-needed infrastructure upgrades.

We are long overdue for a paradigm shift when it comes to trains. Instead of treating Amtrak as the federal government’s version of Oliver Twist, Congress needs to view our railway system the way it does those dishes I spoke of earlier — with appreciation.

Last summer, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced a bill to pick up where the Obama administration’s 2015 Fast Act left off, which was “the first time intercity passenger rail programs have been included in a comprehensive, multimodal surface transportation authorization bill,” according to the Transportation Department. My hope is DeFazio and the new Congress recommit to helping this service with long-term support instead of a year-to-year funding existence.

Yes, planes are faster and, in some cases, cheaper modes of transportation. But Midwest states are not just for flying over, and not everyone has easy access to an airport. For those in rural communities, Amtrak can be a lifeline.

I was reminded of this during the confirmation hearing for Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s pick for secretary of Transportation. Buttigieg, a Democrat and a self- proclaimed train enthusiast, and committee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) had a nice exchange about our beleaguered railway system.

“Mayor Buttigieg, early in your term as secretary, would you have an interest in coming to Mississippi to see the Gulf Coast route from New Orleans through the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and on to Mobile?” Wicker asked.

“I would,” Buttigieg quickly said. “Thank you for the invitation, Chairman. I would love the opportunity.”

Not exactly the Treaty of Versailles, but after a decade of counterproductive partisan tribalism that slowly escalated to the Jan. 6 domestic terrorist attack, seeing men on the opposite sides of the track come together in the name of Amtrak was refreshing. And with Biden — the most pro-train president since Franklin D. Roosevelt (who traveled nearly 250,000 miles by railway during his 12 years in the White House) — there is hope that train service will cease being greeted with disdain because of what it isn’t but with reverence for what it is — a public service.

@LZGranderson


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