Rail Advocacy, the Corridors Movement,
and the Media: Breaking Through

Remarks of James P. RePass,
President & CEO
The National Corridors Initiative
at the
Discovery Institute/Cascadia Conference
and Main Street Forum

December 15-16, 1998
Seattle Westin
Seattle, Washington

The National Corridors Initiative
35 Terminal Road Suite 210 Providence, RI 02905
Voice: 617-269-5478 Fax: 617-269-3943
Internet: www.nationalcorridors.org
e-mail address jprepass@aol.com



Rail Advocacy, the Corridors Movement, and the Media:Breaking Through
James P. RePass, National Corridors Initiative

Good Day. I want to thank Cascadia Task Force Co-Chairs Mayor Doug McCallum of Surrey, B.C., Olympia Mayor Pro-Tem Mark Foutch and Oregon State Senator Susan Castillo ofEugene, and Cascadia Project Director Bruce Agnew, for inviting me once again to speak to you here in this glorious part of our great nation, the Pacfic Northwest.

I'm live in Boston, and my organization, the National Corridors Initiative, is headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island. I've been lucky in that being a rail advocate requires some political skill, and in the Northeast, and especially in Boston, you get good training because politics is definitely a contact sport. One local politician was asked, "Senator, can you possibly explain how you got 362 votes from just one triple decker (that's a 3-family house) in South Boston?" "That's easy ," he replied. "The top floor was empty!" That was the same Senator --- he was from a pretty tough neighborhood ---- who got hot under the collar when someone challenged the socio-economic standing of his constituents: "My people have American Express gold cards too," he declaimed. "It's just that they have other peoples' names on them..."

Coming here is fun. In Boston, the three main activities are sports, politics, and revenge; I'm a native of New Orleans, where those three activities are party, party, and coma. And then I come to Seattle, where people manage to be combine keen intelligence, with an easy-going nature, while still working an 18-hour day. How do you do it? No wonder the rest of America wants to live here. Sure, the scenery is great. But really, what matters is the people...and I feel very privileged to be part of you today.

I'm going to talk about two things: first, that in terms of Cascadia's focus on the Corridor paradigm, you are not alone --- and second, that even though from a rail advocate's perspective, in region after region of the country events are, as they say, moving "our way" and they really are, if you're a believer in the need for a functional freight and passenger rail system --- we really have to do a better job of getting the story out.

Over the better part of the past decade, the Discovery Institute and its Cascadia Project have managed to create what has become --- and I do not exaggerate this --- one of the smartest and most inspiring transportation stories in the entire country. It is a credit to the Cascadia Project, to the legislators of both parties who have worked to support it, and to the people of Washington, British Columbia, and Oregon who have come to the conclusion that more lanes of interstate are not the answer to anybody's prayers.

Indeed the new Talgo trains put into service last month are the closest thing to perfection for attracting new riders and keeping existing customers in the Cascadia travel environment, where tourism is so important. With their oversized picture windows, spacious cabins, and first rate train crews who prove that "esprit de corps" and "Amtrak" are two ideas that can indeed go together, the Cascadia service has brought back to the region's rails tens of thousands of new riders, and given encouragement to loyal friends who, a few years ago, might well have been on the verge of despair.

And, as quality of service and travel times have improved, what has also happened is that the business traveler has begun to return to the rails. Business travelers don't do that because they are nostalgic or because they want to look at scenery although a trip on Board a Talgo train, or on the Amtrak Superliners of the Coast Starlight, are both big steps up from what most Americans still think of as the modern-day rail travel experience, and certainly a great leap forward for anyone who has flown Air Cattle Car lately. Business travelers, if they take the train, do so because it's cost effective and/or time effective for them to do so.

The Cascadia Project has achieved this through a highly creative approach to integrated transportation policy, planning, and execution that has truly made it a model for the whole country. I really can't say enough good things about you, because those of us fighting for a balanced transportation system have been in a long, twilight struggle that actually goes back nearly half a century, a struggle which only now --- only just now --- we have begun to win.

And so, finally, finally, finally, we can say to balanced transportation advocates here in the Pacific Northwest - you are not alone.

Just one month ago I stood in Gallier Hall on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, one of the most beautiful buildings in a City that positively overflows with architectural beauty, just a short trolley ride from Canal Street, and watched with amazement and great joy, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) and United States Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, a loyal Democrat from Arkansas, jointly announced the creation of the Gulf Coast Rail Corridor, which will run from Houston through New Orleans to Pensacola, and from New Orleans up through Meridian, MS and Birmingham, AL. Also on the dais were Tommy Thompson, the progressive Republican Governor of Wisconsin who chairs Amtrak's Board; Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris; New Orleans Airport Board Chairman and former Civil Rights Leader Justice Revious O. Ortique Jr. - a colleague of Martin Luther King --- who introduced conservative Gov. Kirk Fordice of Mississippi was there, as well as Amtrak Vice Chair and National Corridors Initiative's Chairman John Robert Smith, the Mayor of Meridian MS. And in a very eloquent speech Gov. Fordice, who was not originally a supporter of passenger rail, made the point for all of us: "The difference between an advanced national economy and an undeveloped one remains transportation"

The reason for my joy that day is pretty obvious--- aside from the fact that NCI had helped craft the law that made that day possible ---- this was a multi-cultural, non-partisan group if there ever was one. But they had one thing in common: they were all inNew Orleans that day to publicly announce their support for major infrastructure investment in passenger rail. Before my eyes was exactly the kind of coalition that you have created here in the Pacific Northwest, and that we of NCI created in New England in our first incarnation as the Northeast Corridor Initiative back in 1989.

Despite rhetoric, partisanship and acrimony in Washington, people like you, and like me, all over this country, are coming together to do what's right for ourselves, and for our children: to begin the long but fruitful process of building a balanced transportation system that invests in rail capacity --- both freight and passenger --- just as it has always invested in highways and airports.

And the story gets better. Joining the Pacific Northwest and the Cascadia project as an active corridor development is the Mid West Regional Rail initiative, a 9-state consortium, plus Amtrak and the FRA, which in August announced completion of its first major study calling for an eight-year, $3.5 billion program of rail infrastructure improvement that will lead to a 3000-mile Chicago-hubbed Midwest intercity rail system using the latest technology to achieve high speeds incrementally, at a very low cost per-mile.

There's more: In October, Gov. George Pataki of New York State announced a $185 million improvement program for the Empire Corridor between New York City, Albany, and Buffalo, including refurbishment of the Corridors vintage Turbo Trains.

Then, just two weeks after the New Orleans press conference, on December 1, Secretary Slater and North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt announced the creation of not one but two High Speed Rail Corridors between Washington and Florida. North Carolina has already established itself as a state that supports passenger rail development. Now Intercity improvements - much as you have fostered here in Cascadia --- are entering the equation in the Southeastern United States.

And, I don't want to forget that last year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush negotiated a deal that saved the Texas Eagle. The Texas Eagle Corridor now serves the Midwest and Southwest via Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas, with refurbished equipment to be funded by a loan from the state of Texas. Initially, Gov. Bush's administration was opposed to any help for Amtrak. My organization intervened, as did a coalition of Mayors, Chamber of Commerce leaders, and ordinary citizens from along that rail Corridor's length, and to his credit Gov. Bush responded positively.

Are you alone here in Cascadia in your commitment to rail? No way. I congratulate you, because outside of the Northeast Corridor, which has been on and off the agenda for decades, you were the first, and you were and are the most successful, of the regions in America who are reviving passenger rail as a way to build a balanced transportation system, and to help get freight and people off of the highways and back onto the rails.

So let's recap: here are the High Speed Rail corridors with official state and Federal backing either open for business, under construction or announced this year alone [Please show Slide 1]:

***********

Eliminate for double-counting, and what you get is: 36 states whose legislatures and governors have gotten involved to support intercity, intra-regional passenger rail development, usually for the first time in several decades.

What we also get is the following [Please show Slide 2]:

  • There are 538 electoral votes in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia
  • 270 electoral votes are needed to win the Presidency Then this [Please show Slide 3]:
  • States supporting passenger rail development now total - are you ready for this - 458 electoral votes
  • [Fourth Slide] Just in case you missed it...

    This is what Lyndon Johnson did in 1965, with Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island.

    Yes, believe it or not, those are the numbers. My fellow radicals, if this movement fails, we've got no one to blame but ourselves, because we've got the votes. And if you've got the votes, their hearts and minds will follow..isn't that the saying? Something like that...As Arlo Guthrie might say - in fact, he did say it --- all of a sudden, you've got a movement!

    But wait a minute. I started out here today by saying I wanted to talk about two things, the first being that the Cascadia movement is not alone --- and I think I've demonstrated that.

    And the big question is, with 36 other states actively involved in the same Rail Corridor process, to one degree or another, why are we the only people who know about this?

    The answer is both simple and complex, and it resides in the nature of late 20th century American journalism. Because, guess what, in each of the other regions where rail advocacy has taken hold and is producing results, the people in those regions are only dimly aware of what's going on in other regions. That's not true of the hard core, as we are --- but it is true of most of the people who need to know, and who need to be influenced, that they are supporting a project that has other support, other resonance, other raison d'etre, throughout the country. America worships the myth of the rugged individualist who makes his own way without regard for his neighbor's opinion, but at the same time, we are a nation of joiners --- and that's not bad, because that's how you get things done. We must communicate to the Congress, directly and through the Media, that we, and the rest of those regions I named, are indeed a movement.

    Back in my youth I was trained as a journalist, at The Washington Post and the St. Pete Times in Florida, and although I haven't been a working journalist for many years, I've kept up my friendships in the business, and I still write a lot of Op Ed pieces, and meet with a lot of journalists. Let me give you my take on journalists: it's a tough life. You're always under pressure, you've got to be 100% sharp, you have to become an instant expert on many different topics every week, and when you screw up, everybody knows about it. That's tough to take, week in, week out, especially when a lot of people --- when you say,"Hi, I'm with the Press" --- mistake you for Geraldo Rivera, who is of course a beloved figure, especially to real journalists.

    The irony is that locally and regionally, the news media has done a good job in writing up this story, the story of rail's revival here in the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle Post Intelligencer has run a series of stories over the years, noting the growing success of the Cascadia Project and its important rail component, and giving a good accounting of the problems faced. The television media have shown the story in pictures and vivid imagery that only that medium can portray.

    In New England, it's a similar situation: there have been some good newspaper stories on the coming Northeast High Speed Rail Corridor, and some excellent television spots on what the new Corridor will look like, and how it will work. In the Carolinas, the local media has been right on top of the on-going success of that Corridor.

    Why is it then that when I turn on Tom Brokaw, or Dan Rather, or Peter Jennings, or CNN, I never hear about this story? That if I hear anything at all about rail, it's about the fleecing of America because $50 bucks was spent to fix up a train station in West Virginia? or too much money was spent on a grade crossing in Vermont? Why do we never see coverage of the greatest single transportation revolution of the last 25 years, the slow, painful, but very real rebirth of the American passenger rail system?

    The answer is: we're not getting through. No matter how good a job the local news media do covering the Cascadia Project, the only way we'll make the national news is if we kill a busload of nuns at a grade crossing. Now I'm not proposing this.

    But I do have a serious point to make: in America, we cover local stories at the local level, and we do it pretty well. And we cover the White House, and international news, and we do it pretty well. But anything that requires the stitching together of disparate but related stories region by region by region to discover a national trend, --- man oh man, that takes an Act of God.

    One reason: Because rail is an easy dog to kick. At the national news level, you take the pressure and instant expert problem faced by all journalists, and you raise it to the tenth power. When that happens, journalists, being human, rely upon the conventional wisdom.

    But where do you get the conventional wisdom, if you're a national level journalist and you hang out on the Washington-New York-LA axis? You get it from the people you hang out with.

    And if you hang out in Washington, or work regularly with those who do, what you're going to hear is the guy whose shouting the loudest that he's got the wisdom. The biggest lobbying interests, the biggest trade groups, the richest campaign givers, are the ones you'll hear. And let me tell you, they ain't the passenger rail guys.

    So what do we do? After all, I entitled my speech "breaking through," so I've got to tell you how, right?

    Okay, I'll try.

    It's time for the rail advocates first national March on Washington.

    It's time to start calling up Tom Brokaw's producer, and Rather's, and the rest, and ask them how they've missed this story. And when you talk to the media, explain: this is not about nostalgia. It's not about choo choos. Its about the future of our country, and our ability to work and breathe without asphyxiating ourselves while sitting in some 5 mile long parking lot.

    It's time to endorse former FRA Administrator Gil Carmichael's call for "Interstate II" --- and I'd like to ask this conference to endorse it today --- the steel Interstate II rail highway, with the same attention, and commitment, and funding that the original Interstate Highway program got in 1954.

    It's time to send those slides to each of the declared and potential Presidential candidates --- and then follow up with a telephone call to their campaign manager and policy advisor.

    If you here in the Cascadia region will designate a spokesmen, and we can go to each of the other regions and designate their spokesmen, there is no reason why we can't ask for a meeting with the President, with the Vice President, with the Chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations, Finance, and Transportation Committees, and ask them, please pay attention.

    Look what we have done, without the budget of the highway lobby, and in the face of much indifference. Look what you have done, with the sweat of your brow and little money, and very often, at great personal sacrifice of both career and fortune.

    And most of all, let's remind the nation's national news media, and the political leadership - and they are very much intertwined, for better or for worse --- that while we may indeed live in an age of diversity, and that while we may want to celebrate our diversity, it may also be time, in America, to start looking at those things which unite us and make us one, not only those things that set us apart from each other. And a functional, rational, balanced national passenger rail system, strong in every region and ranging from coast to coast, and linking up, is one of those things that can unite us best.

    Thank you for listening, and keep up the good work. You should very proud of yourselves today. In closing, I want to continue a tradition that I understand was launched here in Seattle at a hearing on transportation, a tradition that requires testimony to be given in rhymed format. I dedicate it to all of you:

    There once was a crowd from Cascadia
    Whose efforts for rail escaladia'd
    Till low and behold, with courage untold
    The Tracks superseded Pave-adia.



    The NCI...
    The National Corridors Initiative
    is a collection of business, environmental, government, and academic leaders who came together in 1989 to secure the re-start of the Northeast Corridor Project, which at that time had been stalled for nearly a decade. NCI is primarily oriented towards economic development via rail infrastructure investment.

    In 1990 and 1991 NCI organized three delegations to the White House to seek release of $125 million that had been authorized for the Northeast Corridor project ten years before, but not appropriated. We were successful in this effort, and the funds were made available for the first new work in a decade on the NEC. Since then we have worked to make sure that 1) the project went forward, and 2) that Amtrak had a chance at survival. In the Northeast we now stand at $1.4 billion invested, and $800 million in trainsets under construction. Other Corridors have begun to develop throughout the United States, and NCI has been active in supporting these.

    We have done this through conferences, newspaper op Ed pieces, and direct contact with regional and national business and political leaders, and journalists.

    The development of passenger rail in America over the past three decades has been to say the least problematic, with great skepticism that passenger rail would survive, let alone grow. But in December of 1997 we won a great victory when the President signed the Amtrak Reform Act, which provided for $2.3 billionin new capital and the first multi-year authorization in many years. We are not out of the woods, but we can begin to see the sky again.

    We have linked up with the groups in each region that are seeking infrastructure investment, and have acted (through our conferences in 1996 and 1997) as a means of sharing information from region to region, to help advance the rapidity with which passenger rail returns to America. This involves a variety of approaches, from incremental to true high-speed, and requires the cooperation of freight railroads as well as Amtrak, which is not always easy. The NCI asks you to join in supporting this effort, and to lend your ideas and input to make this rapidly growing rail renaissance a success.

    James P. RePass -- JPREPASS@aol.com


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