By Ed Wytkind and John Previsich
Passenger rail has a long, proud history in Kentucky and Amtrak in particular enjoys support from Kentuckians, regardless of their political views. That's the clear message of a recent poll that finds bipartisan support for maintaining or expanding Amtrak service.
This should come as no surprise to politicians, given identical poll results across the Midwest and the growing popularity of Amtrak all over the country. The real shocker is that some lawmakers are ignoring their voters and still pushing to defund or privatize Amtrak — a position clearly out of step with Americans of all political persuasions.
With Congress preparing to rewrite the law that governs Amtrak, now is the time for elected officials to listen to their constituents.
In Kentucky, seven out of 10 residents would like to see the option of convenient Amtrak service to major U.S. cities such as Chicago or New York, according to an October survey conducted by DFM Research.
Nearly 60 percent view Amtrak favorably, which explains why a similar percentage wants to maintain or increase funding for Amtrak. A mere 10 percent have an unfavorable view of Amtrak.
And here's the remarkable thing: Kentuckians overwhelmingly support Amtrak, even though limited service means that most use it infrequently. The two lines that run through Kentucky, the Cardinal and the City of New Orleans, traverse a relative handful of towns and cities on the western and eastern edges of the state.
The reason for Amtrak's popularity is simple: Kentucky residents, like most Americans, understand that passenger rail is part of an integrated transportation system.
These views are not a nostalgic yearning for more trains — Amtrak ridership is at an all-time high, reaching 31.6 million last year. This poll proves that Kentuckians want a piece of the action.
The story about growing demand for Amtrak service isn't just an East Coast trend. Ridership is up on Amtrak across most routes throughout the country, including Kentucky where Amtrak saw a 17 percent spike in business.
Recent polls in states far less dependent on passenger rail, including Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and now Kentucky, show that Americans (political views aside) appreciate the role of Amtrak in improving the mobility of Americans. They want more Amtrak service and they want public investment to fund it.
The popularity of Amtrak transcends blue state/red state divisions, offering a striking example of non-partisan pragmatism that elected leaders would do well to emulate. After all, providing passenger rail service is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it's a public interest issue.
In the Midwest, passenger rail is particularly crucial to rural areas. That's why public figures such as former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole believe Amtrak must be funded. "It is important that people in rural communities have access to the benefits of passenger rail service," he said.
Passenger rail is also a major priority for those who care about the economy, which is why business leaders have joined the push to expand Amtrak.
They know that long-term economic growth cannot happen without a greatly enhanced transportation infrastructure, and that expanded passenger rail must be part of the picture. This takes investment, rather than a short-sighted embrace of funding cuts or poorly conceived privatization schemes.
We cannot accept or afford a second-rate passenger rail system. We need a fully modernized Amtrak that can accommodate the higher-speed rail that many states are already planning.
And we need an Amtrak that is poised to efficiently deploy long-term federal investments, in partnership with states and the private sector.
This will only happen if those in Washington put aside ideology and listen to what the majority of Kentuckians, and Americans, are saying: Don't derail Amtrak, fund it.
To read the survey, which includes Kentucky views on politicians, the U.S. Senate race and coal: Click here.
John Previsich is president of SMART—Transportation Division; Edward Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.