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In Brief

News highlights from around the world

Issue: "NEA: School bully," June 22, 2002

End of the line for Amtrak?

Amtrak is warning that if it doesn't get a bank loan to the tune of $200 million, the railroad will come to a screeching halt in July. Amtrak President David Gunn also presented to the Amtrak board a reorganization plan that would include a "traditional" railroad management structure, and clip its bureaucracy: The number of vice-presidential slots would be cut from 84 to about 20. TeamBush proposes leaving the Amtrak budget at $521 million this year, but Amtrak suggests it absolutely needs a $1.2 billion budget. Sen. Ernest Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, introduced a bill that would give billions in loans and grants to Amtrak for improvements, with very little reform required. Passenger rail service accounts for about half of 1 percent of America's intercity trips, but every Amtrak rider costs taxpayers nearly $100. Subsidies on some long-distance routes reach $300 a passenger. "It would be cheaper for taxpayers to get these folks roundtrip tickets on Southwest Airlines," quips economist Steve Moore. Will Washington consider a privatized Amtrak? In January, the congressionally appointed Amtrak Reform Council voted 9-1 for introducing private competition, but many members of Congress relish the 41 routes that send trains through their home districts, and aren't likely to support a tough-love solution. | Tim Graham

Survey says: Terror fears high

  • 33% of Americans favor making it easier for authorities to access private e-mail and telephone conversations
  • 39% worry that they or someone in their family will become victims of a terrorist attack in the United States
  • 40% fear that terrorists will harm them or their family
  • 70% favor requiring U.S. citizens to carry identification cards with fingerprints
  • 77% believe all Americans should have smallpox vaccinations

Free to a good home

Want your own lighthouse? Try government surplus. The Coast Guard has about 300 too many and wants to unload them. The Interior Department has the task of unburdening these structures. Officials say they will give them away to practically anyone. The law authorizes the no-cost transfer of historic lighthouses and stations to federal, local, and nonprofit groups. Individuals can take those that go unclaimed. Locations range from California to Maine to Minnesota to Rhode Island. But obtaining your own lighthouse is no easy task. The new owner may spend millions of dollars keeping its lights and fixtures working, not to mention following federal standards. The transfer deed includes a clause that says the government can reclaim the lighthouse if it is not kept up. When the lighthouse giveaway is complete, only one lighthouse in the country will be required by federal law to have a lightkeeper: the Boston Harbor Light, the nation's first one, established in 1716 on Little Brewster Island. The British blew it up in 1776; it was rebuilt in 1783 and its light has been burning ever since.

Making a killing on KI

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Thanks to terrorism threats, potassium iodide is flying off the shelves. The pills protect the thyroid gland from one type of radioactive fallout. It isn't a cure-all, but it's still a big seller. Potassium iodide (chemical symbol KI) is the only medication for internal radiation exposure. Yet it only protects the thyroid from cancer-and no other body parts. It also would only help people close to the explosion and only if a bomb used radioactive iodine instead of other substances. The rush to buy KI is similar to last year's Cipro craze, except this drug is available without a prescription. A day's dose, one pill, costs about $1. People who live near nuclear reactors have been stocking up for months. One Internet site, NukePills.com, reported orders for 10,000 packs of the pills in just one day. But dirty bomb panic has increased demand. The government also spurred some of the stockpiling when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began offering states enough KI to treat every resident within 10 miles of a reactor. Officials reason that radioactive iodine is likely to be released during a serious reactor accident or attack.

Data prospectors

Trans Union may be headed for disunion. The credit-reporting agency collects data on how millions of Americans manage their money, but a tide of lawsuits over the release of such data could force the company into bankruptcy. Trans Union lost a court battle last week when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower-court ruling against the company. At stake is the use of target marketing lists. Trans Union compiled these lists of selected consumers for banks, insurance companies, and even political groups, which could then contact people with certain levels of income, credit card debt, or bank loans. The Fair Credit Reporting Act limits how credit agencies may release consumer credit information. A bank considering someone for a mortgage may see such data, for example, but catalog sellers may not. Trans Union argued that its use of lists constitutes free speech and is protected by the First Amendment, a claim that the Federal Trade Commission and now the courts have rejected.

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