Amtrak faces renewed threat of cuts Rail officials say they're frustrated by latest attack

July 08, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Pity poor Amtrak. Nearly every time officials of the national passenger rail service come to Congress, hat in hand, they are presented with a threat of slashed funding and a lecture on the profligacy of their ways.

Now, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that sets spending levels for transportation programs says he intends to cut deeply or eliminate the $621 million proposed by President Clinton for Amtrak next year.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the conservative Alabama Republican seeking the cuts, is unlikely to prevail: More than half the Senate has lined up against him.

Yet Amtrak officials say they are frustrated that they are again being criticized when they have already adopted a series of wide-ranging reforms. They would be hard-pressed to operate their full range of trains without that money, they say.

And the quality of train service for Marylanders would be immediately affected, state and federal officials say.

Amtrak runs 50 trains a day for Maryland Rail Commuter Service (MARC) in addition to its own passenger trains that travel through the state; more than 1.4 million people traveled on Amtrak trains in the state during the past fiscal year, according to the American Passenger Rail Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group paid for by companies dependent on Amtrak contracts.

"It's clear that any [immediate] phasing out of Amtrak subsidies would have an impact on everybody who's riding the rail in Maryland," said Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department.

In a June 22 letter, Amtrak's acting president, George D. Warrington, said that if federal subsidies are eliminated, the company would cut its services by half, and that it would have to cease nearly all its long-distance service in the fall. The frequency of trains serving the Northeast would also be reduced, he wrote.

"Anything less than $621 million will end Amtrak's chance of turning the corner to self-sufficiency," said Bill Schulz, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, were among 53 senators of both parties who wrote Shelby to argue against any proposed cuts for Amtrak.

While philosophically opposed to federal subsidies for Amtrak, Shelby said in a brief interview last night that he would be more inclined to provide money if he were granted a bigger pool for the activities funded by his subcommittee, which include most transportation programs.

His comments indicated a financial tug of war with senior Senate Republicans and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, that has little to do with Amtrak. A scheduled hearing yesterday on Shelby's transportation proposals was delayed until today as disagreements had yet to be ironed out, Shelby said.

But several people on Capitol Hill said they expected to see some compromise reached, as it has been in times past. "We want to see if we can't resolve it positively," Sarbanes said yesterday.

The national rail system has had troubled finances almost since its inception in 1971. Last year, as the for-profit, federally chartered company faced $80 million in annual losses, Congress required Amtrak to become fully self-sufficient by 2002.

As part of a compromise negotiated with the Clinton administration, Congress also allocated $2.3 billion for capital investments -- contingent on a shift in labor policies and a new governing structure.

Were Amtrak to cover a cut in operating funds by shifting money from its capital budget, it would be less able to repair its already sorely tested bridges and tracks, Cahalan said. "That's certainly a problem that people up and down the Eastern seaboard will have to deal with," he said.

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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