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TO BALANCE TRANSIT SYSTEM, GET AMTRAK OFF THE SICK LIST

Amtrak is to be congratulated for the major milestone it passed this week, the 25th anniversary of its operation as the nation's only interstate passenger railroad.

Its continued existence alone is no small accomplishment in an era when passenger transportation is dominated by automobiles and airlines.Even more impressive is the fact that patronage of Amtrak and other passenger trains has increased 50 percent during the past decade in the face of stiffening competition from cut-rate air fares.

Such patronage seems likely to keep increasing as higher gasoline prices make highway travel more costly.

But don't start cheering yet.

Amtrak still isn't out of the woods and won't be unless the Senate goes along with the U.S. House of Representatives by voting to dip into the highway trust fund to help Amtrak upgrade run-down equipment, start developing high-speed trains like those in Europe and Japan, and otherwise improve service.

Wouldn't such a diversion of funds amount to a misuse of money provided by highway users and earmarked for the improvement of roads and bridges?

Not at all.

For one thing, the highway trust fund is running a surplus of some $16 billion and could easily spare the money if only Congress would stop leaving this surplus untouched as a way of making the federal deficit look smaller than it really is.

For another, Washington subsidizes all other forms of transportation and there's no reason to make an exception for interstate passenger trains.

Moreover, if Amtrak is allowed to sicken and die, the passengers who now use it to make 22 million intercity rail trips each year would be dumped onto the nation's highways, making those routes more congested and the air more polluted.

Better funding for Amtrak, then, should be viewed not as an exercise in nostalgia for rail travel's golden past but as an investment in the balanced transportation system that will become increasingly necessary as this nation's population keeps growing.