Md. senators protest Amtrak commuter rate increases

September 15, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland's U.S. senators are protesting Amtrak's plans to sharply increase fares for inter-city commuters, warning that the railroad's decision to raise the price of monthly passes by hundreds of dollars could drive away riders.

Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski said yesterday that they have sent a letter to Amtrak President David Gunn urging him to reconsider plans that could add more than $350 to the cost of a monthly pass for rides between Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Some among the relatively small band of long-distance commuters who use Amtrak have said the increases could force them to seek new jobs, relocate or find other means of transportation.

Sarbanes and Mikulski, both Democrats, said the railroad's decision to raise commuter rates "would place a disproportionate and unjustified burden on Amtrak's loyal riders in the Northeast corridor."

The senators pointed out that the commuter pass price increases - more than 60 percent in many cases - far exceeded the increased cost of diesel fuel for Amtrak trains.

Amtrak announced last week that it would raise the price of all tickets by 5 percent to 7 percent because of the rising price of fuel. But it said it was raising the cost of its monthly Smart Passes by far greater amounts because the passes have been more heavily subsidized than other rail fares.

The Maryland senators expressed concern that the increases could drive commuters away from Amtrak and reduce its revenues: "Such a counter-productive policy could place Amtrak in further jeopardy while also increasing traffic congestion and pollution in metropolitan areas around the country," they said in their letter.

While officially an independent government-owned corporation, Amtrak historically has been sensitive to complaints from Capitol Hill. Targeted for big budget cuts by the Bush administration, the railroad depends on Congress to protect its federal subsidy.

Its latest fare increases, set to go into effect Tuesday, have brought an outcry from lawmakers along the Northeast corridor, where about 1,500 commuters depend on Amtrak's Smart Pass program.

New Jersey Democratic Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Jon S. Corzine, two staunch Amtrak supporters, asked Amtrak to reconsider the "steep price increases and the associated hasty implementation schedule."

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