Amtrak arriving at critical junction for rail passengers With strike looming, funding bill is blocked by political stalemate

October 25, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A wicked combination of hardball politics, rickety finances and labor strife poses such a perilous threat to Amtrak that some members of Congress are warning that its demise is a distinct possibility.

"We're really close to losing a national passenger rail system in this country," Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday. "We're at a stalemate."

Awash in IOUs, Amtrak has been pinning its hopes on a congressional spending package that would have forced the quasi-public railroad to become financially self-sufficient. But that bill was scotched yesterday by an unlikely coalition of lawmakers who support labor and those who oppose public subsidies for mass transit.

At the same time, the prospect of a crippling strike looms. A panel named by President Clinton has supported a union's call for modest pay increases. Amtrak says it has no money for them. Without the raises, the workers who maintain its tracks, bridges and terminals have vowed to strike at 12: 01 Wednesday morning.

Don't write off the likelihood of a late-hour resolution. Authorization measures for Amtrak have sparked crises before, union officials say, and Congress invariably has resolved them.

And despite the intransigence of the two sides, a strike is not entirely a foregone conclusion. Yesterday, Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who is chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, drafted legislation to extend the "cooling-off" period between Amtrak and the Brotherhood of the Maintenance of Way Employees, to try to force them to find common ground.

Yet there may not be much common ground to find.

Amtrak operates 70 passenger trains a day in Maryland. Throughout the nation, it serves 60,000 passengers daily, including 35,000 passengers on the busy Northeast corridor. Amtrak also operates the MARC system's Penn line between Baltimore's Penn Station and Washington's Union Station.

Union officials note that the 2,300 members of the maintenance union have worked for three years without a contract. And they say they merely want increases -- a 3.1 percent annual increase over five years -- that would keep their pay even with inflation. Freight railways pay equivalent workers about $3 more than the $15.50 hourly average earned by Amtrak workers.

"It's not right to ask the American worker to accept substandard wages simply because you don't want to adequately fund the agency," said Jed Dodd, a union negotiator.

The union has pledged that a strike would not interrupt commuter lines, such as the MARC lines. Even so, an Amtrak official warned yesterday that it might be difficult for MARC lines to run all the way into Washington.

After negotiations failed in August, President Clinton declared a 60-day cooling off period, pushing back a strike deadline until this month and appointing an arbitration panel. That panel recommended that Amtrak give the employees the raise. This week, the union agreed to postpone its deadline an additional week, to Wednesday.

But the president of Amtrak, Thomas M. Downs, said his company cannot afford the money, which he estimates would cost $25 million annually. And Amtrak officials say they are being whipsawed by the dual challenges from the union and from Congress.

This summer, Congress agreed to provide Amtrak with $2.3 billion for capital improvements. But, by law, that money will not be released unless Congress restructures the way Amtrak does business.

Some officials, including Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, have said Amtrak could use some of the money earmarked for capital improvements such as high-speed trains to pay for raises and avert a strike. But Republican leaders say this would amount to a misuse of federal funds.

Founded by Congress as a for-profit corporation, Amtrak has never earned a profit. Cuts in federal subsidies have worsened its difficulties, forcing the company to eliminate routes. It stands to lose $80 million this year and could face bankruptcy early next year without new money.

The Republican bill authorizes $3.4 billion to operate Amtrak through 2000. But at the same time, Republicans led by Rep. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, head of the House Transportation Committee, are demanding that Amtrak contract out more of its work and drop generous severance packages for workers who are laid off -- up to six years' pay for some. The measure would also limit the liability of freight lines when their trains have accidents on Amtrak-owned rails.

"It's obscene," Jeff Nelligan, a spokesman for the Transportation Committee, said of Amtrak's current labor practices. "You can't run a business that way."

Two years ago, after Republicans took control of both houses of Congress, the unions warily acceded to some of those changes in a similar House measure. This year, they have fought the provisions and have support from many Democrats and the White House.

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