Amtrak defenders surprised at omission from VP debate

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

Vocal supporters of Amtrak were surprised that its funding assistance from the federal government did not come up in the debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday night.

Republicans in the House have attacked the approximately $1 billion subsidy Amtrak has received since it was created by Congress in 1971 for much of the 2012 election year. In sharp contrast, Biden’s fondness for the national passenger rail service is such a large part of his “regular guy” political brand that despite being in Congress for all by three years of Amtrak’s existence he is often referred to as “Amtrak Joe.”

But when Biden and Ryan were face-to-face Thursday in Danville, Ky., neither man was on board for any Amtrak discussion.

AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department president Ed Wytkind said the vice presidential nominees were good candidates to highlight the debate between the political parties about Amtrak.

“He’s the most avid rider of Amtrak in modern history. He’s ridden the train thousands of times,” Wytkind said of Biden, who took trains from Washington to Delaware when he served in the Senate rather than moving to the capital city.

“Paul Ryan wants to get rid of Amtrak,” Wytkind continued. “It is a stark contrast to help voters understand the differences between the candidates.”

When Biden was first introduced as President Obama’s running mate in 2008, the Obama campaign touted Biden’s time on Amtrak trains in introductory videos. But “Amtrak Joe” did not mention the Republican push to privatize the most profitable parts of the national rail service on Wednesday, and Ryan similarly eschewed mentioning the rail service is a litany of government inefficiencies he listed.

Instead, Biden focused on the bailout of the U.S. auto industry and Ryan focused on the $860-billion economic stimulus that was championed by the Obama administration in 2009.

Wytkind has testified in support of Amtrak during congressional hearings. He said Friday that he was not surprised that the vice presidential candidates did not dig into more transportation issues like Amtrak funding in the debate, pointing out that moderator Martha Raddatz has “a little bit of a foreign policy bent” as a foreign affairs reporter for ABC News.

Also, Wytkind said, transportation debates have rarely risen above the halls of Congress.

“I’m not that surprised; generally these issues haven’t been in these debates,” he said. “I’ve come to expect transportation issues to not quite make it into national debates.”

But Wytkind said the AFL-CIO’s transportation department, which has endorsed Obama’s bid for reelection, would make sure “every single member that we represent understands that their jobs are on the ballot.

“There’s only one candidate in this race has made transportation a part of his broader message in this campaign,” Wytkind said of Obama.

“Mitt Romney has been completely missing in action on these issues,” he continued. “Honestly, not entirely sure that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan know that Amtrak exists other than as pincushion they can use to attack federal spending.”

Obama and Romney will get their next chance to bring transportation into their debate on Oct. 16 at Hofrstra University in New York.


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