Administration ready to junk Amtrak if it isn't overhauled, Mineta says

Rail officials, supporters call plan irresponsible

February 17, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's message to Amtrak is simple: Change or die.

If Amtrak isn't drastically overhauled, the Bush administration is prepared to essentially junk it and save only the commuter-rail segments, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said yesterday. That's preferable, he said, to spending about $1 billion a year in subsidies to keep the cross-country passenger rail system alive.

In its 2006 budget, the administration proposes eliminating Amtrak's annual subsidy, which is $1.2 billion this year. The idea is to force Congress and Amtrak to institute sweeping change. Bush would limit Amtrak to owning and operating trains. Others, including state or local governments, would own the rails, stations and physical property, much as private businesses run airlines but the government maintains airports.

Every other mode of transportation has changed significantly since the 1970s, when trucking and aviation were deregulated, but not Amtrak, Mineta said.

Amtrak, which began service in 1971 after the government took over bankrupt private railroads, carries about 24 million passengers a year. In addition to cross-country and inter-city rail lines, it operates commuter services for several regions. It operates routes over 22,000 miles of rails and owns 730 miles of rails, mostly between Boston and Washington and in Michigan. The company has more than 500 stations in 46 states, all but Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Under the Bush plan, states along a given line would pay for rail upkeep. If a state wouldn't pay, stations along the line in that state would be closed and trains wouldn't stop in them, Mineta said.

The Transportation Department is discussing the sale of Amtrak infrastructure, said Jeffrey Rosen, the agency's general counsel.

If Congress continues to balk at Bush's vision for Amtrak, the administration would push to spend only $360 million to keep commuter-rail systems alive, mostly in the Northeast, Mineta said.

But if Congress and Amtrak adopt the Bush plan, the administration is willing to spend about $1 billion a year in grants to state and local governments to help run the former parts of Amtrak, Mineta said. That money isn't in the president's budget but would be part of a supplemental spending request and would have to be matched by state and local funds.

Amtrak officials and supporters called the administration's plan irresponsible.

In a message to employees last week, Amtrak President David Gunn said Bush officials "have no plan for Amtrak other than bankruptcy."

Amtrak supporters expressed confidence that Congress will keep providing the money the system needs even if Bush won't, as has been true in the past. Federal subsidies have increased from $520 million in 2001 to $1.2 billion in each of the past two years.

"Amtrak will be back, and it will get barely enough to survive," said former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, a former vice chairman of the Amtrak Reform Board. "The states have no interest in this."

"The federal government has never adequately invested in passenger rail; it's always been on a starvation diet," said John Robert Smith, a former Amtrak chairman of the board. "To push the company to bankruptcy ... is a dangerous game to play."

While Rosen said separating infrastructure and operations "might produce increased opportunities," Dukakis said it would be a disaster.

"Anybody who runs a railroad -- and I have, because the governor runs the MBTA [Boston's subway system] -- knows when you divide the responsibility for operations and infrastructure you're asking for trouble," he said. "This Balkanization thing is preposterous."

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