Amtrak appears due for reform

Bush administration wants states to pay more of system costs

November 28, 2005|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta insists he's not interested in dismantling Amtrak or cutting service in the Northeast Corridor.

But David L. Gunn, whose recent ouster as Amtrak's chief executive is viewed by transit experts as a turning point for the railroad, says those will be the inevitable results of the Bush administration's transportation policies.

One thing they agree on is that matters are coming to a head at the government-run national passenger rail system.

"Let me be clear about this. Amtrak is not a public-policy issue that you can sit around and debate while nothing gets done," Mineta said in a speech in New York on Nov. 17. "You can't stall reform just because you can't get the system that you want."

Maryland would be profoundly affected by an interruption of Amtrak service largely because the high-profile, heavily traveled route linking Washington and Boston runs through the state.

Almost 1.8 million riders boarded at Maryland's six Amtrak stations in 2004, while an estimated 1 million Marylanders got on at Union Station in Washington. Baltimore's Penn Station is Amtrak's 10th-busiest station. More than 2,500 Marylanders work for the railroad.

Just as important for Annapolis decision makers, Maryland is one of at least eight states, along with the District of Columbia, that the Bush administration expects to make a hefty contribution to the upkeep of the Northeastern Corridor rail infrastructure.

There is broad agreement that Amtrak, a sprawling rail system patched together after the demise of for-profit passenger railroads in the 1970s, is in need of reform. Each year, it consumes more than $1 billion in federal subsidies. Much of the money is spent preserving high-cost, long-distance routes outside the East Coast and the West Coast, with stops in cities too small to attract commercial air service.

Conservative critics object to the subsidies, contending they underwrite vacation travel at taxpayers' expense. Amtrak supporters say these routes fill gaps in the nation's transportation system.

What constitutes "reform" is a matter of debate. The Bush administration is sticking with a position celebrated in the conservative think tanks of Washington, if not on Capitol Hill, under which a consortium of Northeastern states would assume a large share of the cost of improving and maintaining the rails, bridges, stations and other physical assets owned by Amtrak. "We are willing to use taxpayer money to fund passenger rail where it makes sense, but we are not where it does not," Mineta said.

But, for many in Congress, including Republicans who represent states along those money-hemorrhaging routes, reform that cuts service to the home folks is a nonstarter. That's why many Republicans in both houses of Congress have opposed the Bush administration's effort to "zero out" Amtrak's budget to force drastic action.

Mineta has said the federal government is willing to contribute billions of dollars to infrastructure improvement, but not without changes in what he characterized as "one of the worst-performing business enterprises in America."

Much as they appreciate the rail service to their states, the governors of the states along the Northeast Corridor are not exactly lining up to invest their taxpayers' dollars in such an enterprise. A 2003 statement of the Coalition of Northeastern Governors - five of whose members lie directly along the corridor - politely declined a leading role while pointing out that those states have invested billions in rail infrastructure.

"The federal government must be a strong and consistent partner in the common goal of providing the policy leadership and stable, long-term funding for intercity passenger rail. States are partners, but cannot bear the primary responsibility for intercity passenger rail investment," the statement said.

The administration has sidestepped questions about how it would herd nine or 10 reluctant jurisdictions into a consortium. Nor is it clear how it would make decisions or decide how much each state would pay.

"They're not interested in paying for it. Nobody wants to assume the responsibility for it," Gunn said in a recent interview.

A former top executive of Washington's Metro system, Gunn said it was tough enough running that system with Virginia, Maryland and the District each on the board. Trying to manage a system while juggling the interests of the federal government and all of the states in the corridor would be "unreal," he said.

"You'll get into these horrendous arguments about who benefits," he said.

In Maryland, the Ehrlich administration faces a potentially difficult choice between its friendship with the Bush White House and the state's budget realities. Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said Maryland, which uses Amtrak tracks for some of its MARC commuter services, supports Amtrak reform but is waiting for details of the administration's proposal.

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