October 03, 2001 11:00 pm

For the past 50 years, the federal government, a.k.a. Congress and the White House, have made highways and air routes the top transpor- tation priorities for our country. We believe this is to the detriment of the people.

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the airline industry was headed for another shakeup which would have included more mergers or closure of some companies. For the past decade, headlines have screamed about the decaying road system, including thousands of bridges that are in need of major repairs. In almost every major American city, daily travel has become a nightmare, leading to an increased problem of road rage.

So when Congress and the president pushed through legislation to give the airline industry $15 billion of taxpayer money, most Americans felt that it was what would be needed to keep the industry from collapsing. At the same time, most of the major airline companies went on a rampage of laying off more than 100,000 workers, in most cases giving little notice of the layoffs and virtually no severance packages. Only one airline company stood alone in not laying off employees: Southwest.

Americas national transportation policies have been a failure long before last months attack on the World Trade Center. We have spent hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in creating a network of highways, freeways and expressways that have not improved the ability of most Americans to get from point A to point B much faster. The inability of the airline industry to deliver passengers in a timely and courteous manner had left the public cynical and angry before the sobering events of Sept. 11.

So what is the answer? We believe that our U.S. senators and representatives from Oregon (Smith, Wyden, Walden, Wu, Hooley, Blumenaur, and DeFazio) need to recognize that we need to reinvest in a passenger rail service similar to what Europe has in place. We need to recognize that just as we have subsidized roads and airlines, we need to subsidize a national rail service that allows access to all Americans.

The failure of the federal government to have a quality rail line in place following last months attacks played into the hands of the terrorists, who obviously knew that Americans were too dependent on a single transportation source. Bus service is not a legitimate alternative for Americans who need to travel long distances in a roomy, comfortable fashion. Buses are one form of transportation and should be encouraged to be part of the overall transportation network. But without a national rail service, too many Americans are being left in the cold.

One hundred years ago, rail service was the way Americans traveled. A high quality train service should be part of our transportation link to major cities across the country. In the light of the East Coast attacks, we need a national transportation policy that includes rail service; not like what we have today, but a service that links the thousands of communities across the country that are currently left out of the loop.