Despite critics' efforts to derail it, Amtrak keeps on rolling

March 27, 2005|By David Lightman | David Lightman,THE HARTFORD COURANT

THE BAD GUYS keep trying to stop the train, take away its money and cut the lines.

But the story, at least for Amtrak supporters, always has at least a somewhat happy ending: Amtrak is rescued.

And though 2005 is barely three months old, the same tale is unfolding again, and a similar finish is likely.

The drama this year appears likely to become a rerun from the 1980s and '90s: President threatens to take away Amtrak's operating money, lawmakers from Maryland and other Northeastern states pledge they're going to stop this outrage, and then they claim a victory when they keep the trains running.

Bush has proposed elimination of all federal aid to Amtrak in six months, a move that would quickly put the rail system out of business.

He has also proposed turning the track between Washington and Boston now owned by Amtrak over to a new organization owned and partially subsidized by the states.

Not surprisingly, the states have not been enthusiastic about the idea of their taking responsibility for the track, which needs billions of dollars worth of repairs and upgrades.

And last week David M. Laney, the Bush-appointed chairman of Amtrak, told a reporter for The New York Times that a majority of the board did not agree with the president's state takeover proposal.

Thanks to recent congressional action, even skeptics concede that Amtrak could get enough to keep chugging along for a while, perhaps winding up with a federal check for as much as one-third of its $3 billion operating budget.

"Amtrak will probably get most everything they're asking for," said an annoyed Wendell Cox, senior fellow at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute and a longtime Amtrak critic.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who sits on the House Railroad subcommittee, said that he is 85 percent certain that the money Amtrak needs will be there next year, but that he worries about President Bush chipping away at the national rail system.

Cummings points out it's dangerous to declare victory if Amtrak gets only a fraction of the money it needs.

"What we really need to help Amtrak is an offensive defense," he said last week. "We should be trying to get them more than they ask for, not bragging about getting them less."

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L Flanagan said he expects the Amtrak budget to be maintained but also said he believes the rail system must evolve into a more competitive organization that can attract private capital.

What has sparked the latest round of celebration by Amtrak aficionados is that the House budget, passed this month, has a sentence of hope. It's a convoluted set of words that ends by saying the budget "was increased to accommodate for the continued funding of passenger rail services."

Further buoying Amtrak supporters in the House is that their nemesis, Republican Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, lost the chairmanship of the key transportation money subcommittee last month.

Republican leaders booted him largely because of his hard line on holding down the system's costs.

Istook tried to punish 21 members of the House by denying them highway projects last year because of their support of Amtrak.

He had warned them in a letter, "Every dollar for Amtrak is a dollar less for other transportation funding, including projects for your state and your district."

Replacing Istook is Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, a state whose Rust Belt interests tend to coincide more with those of Northeastern states, including Maryland.

The railroad subcommittee is led by Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, an Ohio Republican.

Critics such as Cox are aghast at these turns; he called the Istook ouster "one of the low points of American democracy."

The Senate also has provided reasons for optimism, although theirs come with yellow lights. Senators this month turned down an effort by Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia to add $1.04 billion in federal money to Amtrak's budget next year, although Byrd got 46 votes for his plan.

That showed a strong constituency for Amtrak, enough to filibuster should opponents try for deep cuts.

More encouraging to rail supporters is that during the recent debate, opponents stressed that they were not out to get rid of Amtrak, just to make it better.

"I agree absolutely that rail passenger service in highly congested areas such as the Northeast corridor from Washington to Boston is not only important, it is essential," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican.

As rosy as all this sounds, Amtrak faces an uncertain fiscal future.

The worst-case scenario - Bush's proposal in last month's budget to cut Amtrak's operating subsidy altogether - appears unlikely.

But before he will sign any transportation bill, or, for that matter, before Congress will approve any Amtrak money, they are all going to have to be convinced that the system is willing to change.

Demands for efficiency

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