Amtrak plan would shift more of cost to states

Railroad board outlines steps to reconcile with Bush goals

April 22, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amtrak proposed a plan yesterday that would phase out its 34-year-old role as the nation's monopoly provider of passenger rail services and shift more of the system's costs to the states.

The proposal marked the first time the railroad board has signed on to the idea that Amtrak should operate in a more competitive environment.

It also departs from the past by saying states should take the lead in developing enhanced rail services and there should be a formal financial performance standard for evaluating whether to scrap long-distance routes.

The proposals mesh with controversial elements of a Bush administration plan for Amtrak that would eliminate the railroad's federal subsidy.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, a leading proponent of the White House plan, called Amtrak's plan a "very significant" move.

"I've got to say that the Amtrak strategic plan really comes a lot farther than any Amtrak proposal that's been advanced before," Mineta said at a news conference. He said the most important aspect of the plan is that it "shows a recognition on the part of Amtrak on the need for reform."

Mineta's remarks came shortly after a morning hearing at which Sen. Trent Lott, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on surface transportation, pledged to bring an Amtrak restructuring bill to the Senate floor by this summer.

"We're going to get something this year one way or another," the Mississippi Republican said.

Lott's declaration could mark the start of a bruising legislative fight as the administration pushes to curb subsidies.

Amtrak seeks money for major infrastructure improvements. And its bottom line wasn't helped this week when the discovery of cracks in the brakes of its high-speed Acela trains forced the railroad to pull them from service until at least this summer. Lawmakers, meanwhile, defend services their constituents cherish.

But after years of largely predictable tussles that have ended with stopgap solutions, there are signs this year's debate could bring some new twists.

Traditionally, Amtrak officials have appeared before Congress each year to seek more money and to resist proposals for sweeping reform. This year, with a board entirely made up of Bush appointees, the railroad still sought more money - a 50 percent budget increase to $1.8 billion - but proclaimed itself eager to change.

Conciliatory tone

Amtrak Chairman David M. Laney and President David L. Gunn struck a conciliatory tone yesterday as they outlined the steps they're willing to take to bridge the gap between the railroad and the administration.

"Amtrak must in the long run transform itself to a competitive provider of passenger rail services, with the recognition that in the near term it will remain the steward of the national passenger rail system as it is today," Laney said.

President Bush has proposed no money for Amtrak in his current budget, insisting that he will not support funds for the money-losing carrier until a reform plan is in place.

That budget tactic prompted senators of both parties to scold the administration's point man at the hearing, Transportation Department general counsel Jeffrey L. Rosen.

Lott asked whether the administration had considered the "ridiculousness" of its proposal.

"I was extremely stunned and disappointed that such a proposal would be sent up here by the administration," he said.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, called the proposal "a terrible way to run a railroad."

"Zero funding means you want to shut the place down," he said.

But Rosen defended Bush's budget approach as a "call to action."

If Amtrak's response - decided in a board vote Wednesday night - is any indication, it might be having that result.

Rosen said the Amtrak plan has moved closer to Bush's in several key respects.

He said the White House goals include a long-term federal-state partnership on inter-city passenger rail, a transition to make Amtrak a pure operating company, a system driven by sound economics, greater competition and a change in the way the infrastructure in the Northeast corridor is managed.

"On each of the five, there's progress. On some of them there's more progress than others," Rosen said.

The Amtrak initiative still departs from the Bush proposal in important respects. Mineta noted that Amtrak is asking the government to assume its $3.5 billion debt - something the administration doesn't plan to do.

"To me that's a big item," he said.

Where the administration wants to turn the Northeast corridor infrastructure over to a federal-state partnership, the railroad wants to maintain ownership of the physical assets.

Gunn said there had been a deterioration in service in places where control of the infrastructure had been detached from operations.

By coordinating operations and maintenance, "you can get a pretty efficient operation," he said.

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