WASHINGTON – Paul Weyrich, a leader of the religious right who coined the phrase "moral majority," is leading a far different movement now. He's spearheading the effort to kill Amtrak, believing the best way to save passenger rail service is to do away with the national railway.
Weyrich was the architect of a recent finding that Amtrak will fail to achieve financial self-sufficiency by a Dec. 2, 2002, deadline set by Congress. The Amtrak Reform Council's decision forces Amtrak to draft a liquidation plan, although only Congress can put it out of business.
The council, set up by Congress to oversee Amtrak, has until February to design a restructured rail passenger system for consideration by Congress. Weyrich and other members are currently circulating ideas and will meet Dec. 14 to begin narrowing their options.
Weyrich might strike rail advocates as an unlikely participant in an effort to revive national train travel. A sharp-tongued critic of much that happens in Washington, Weyrich has written of "rat havens in the Capitol" where federal dollars are doled out.
But he also has co-written three reports on why conservatives should support mass transit and is a founding member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
"He is a complete right-wing ideologue except on one issue -- passenger rail and transit," said Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a Democratic appointee to the council.
Though Norquist and others believe Amtrak should survive in some form, Weyrich is determined to dismantle the railway and build a new entity from scratch.
"Amtrak is a fatally flawed institution that, in my opinion, is broken beyond repair," he said, painting it as bloated, unresponsive to outside advice and insufficiently focused on serving passengers.
Amtrak has consumed more than $24 billion in subsidies since its inception in 1971, including $521 million this year.
Weyrich envisions states taking the lead in implementing profitable high-speed train service in designated areas. He would abolish Amtrak and create a new national corporation to run "connector" trains linking the areas. Those trains would be subsidized by the federal government, but a private company would make money operating their sleeping cars.
"Some places would lose service, some would gain it. That's just the way it goes," Weyrich said.
Ross Capon, executive director of the railroad passengers' group, said he shares some of Weyrich's goals but doubts Congress would be willing to fund new long-distance connector lines if the current network of long-haul routes were abandoned.
Weyrich, 59, became interested in rail as a reporter in Milwaukee, when he wrote a series of articles on how American cities were re-evaluating the importance of trains.
He moved to Washington in 1967 as press secretary to Sen. Gordon Allott, R-Colo. Six years later Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The next year he established the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative redoubt in what it calls the "culture war." He remains president of Free Congress.
At a 1979 gathering of religious leaders, Weyrich talked of a "moral majority" in the country. The name stuck. Over the next decade, the group led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell energized a movement that helped elect three Republican presidents.
Weyrich served on Amtrak's board of directors from 1987 to 1993, clashing with upper management, including then-President W. Graham Claytor.
"It was a cultural problem," Weyrich recalled. "They were never open to any new idea, they never wanted to do any innovation, they were not willing to allow the market to impact their thinking."
Claytor died in 1994. Dennis Sullivan, who served under him as Amtrak's chief operating officer, said Claytor was a brilliant manager whose biggest obstacle was a lack of funding, not a lack of innovative thinking.
Congress created the reform council as part of a 1997 law that gave Amtrak five years to cover its costs without government help. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., chose Weyrich as one of his three appointees.