Using Amtrak rails to cost states more

U.S. seeking to recover renovation costs

March 01, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

Maryland and other northeastern states could face "significant" new costs for the use of Amtrak's tracks by MARC and other commuter rail lines, according to state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

The likely increases are a result of a provision written into last year's federal transportation appropriations bill that seeks to shift some of the financial burden of renovating Amtrak infrastructure from the federal government to the states.

Flanagan, who was in Washington yesterday to discuss the issue, said the exact formula for the payments is being negotiated. He said it is too soon to say what the cost to Maryland or the impact on MARC fares might be.

"We are dealing with a significant increase in costs to the state for providing the service," he said. The federal budget estimates that Amtrak would receive an additional $59 million from all the commuter rail lines in the Northeast Corridor, suggesting that MARC's potential bill would be in the millions rather than tens of millions.

MARC, a unit of the Maryland Transit Administration, operates one of its three routes along Amtrak's Penn Line between Perryville and Union Station. Its other two lines, Camden and Brunswick, operate on CSX Transportation's freight tracks.

Yesterday's meeting involved officials of the Federal Railroad Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration and states in the Washington-Boston corridor, Flanagan said. Amtrak itself was not represented, he said.

No agreement was reached, but the participants decided to meet again later this month, he said.

The provision adopted by Congress last year requires commuter rail agencies to pay Amtrak a percentage of the costs of operating in the Northeast Corridor, according to Capitol Hill staff members. Previously, many of the commuter lines had deals under which they paid only the actual costs that Amtrak incurred because they were using its tracks.

The language adopted by Congress left federal transportation officials considerable leeway in deciding how to calculate the costs to be passed along to the states; it directed them to try to achieve a consensus with the commuter lines.

Flanagan said the federal agencies were not taking a punitive position in the talks. "The only issue that I think is sort of hard-line and somewhat disconcerting is that Congress is imposing a fee on top of the fees that already exist under the terms of the contract," he said.

Under its contract with Amtrak, MARC is scheduled to pay the railroad $28.3 million this year for track use, personnel, operations and maintenance, said Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Department.

Unlike some governors in the corridor, Maryland's Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has adopted a behind-the-scenes approach to the issue.

Three Democratic governors in the corridor - Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware and Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey - released a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta pressing him for a meeting to ensure an "open and transparent" process.

Ehrlich, like other Republican governors in the Northeast, declined to sign the letter. "We felt strategically that there were more effective ways of communicating with the Department of Transportation," Flanagan said.

Maryland has received information from its congressional liaisons that the new formula - adopted as the Bush administration was pressing to reduce Amtrak subsidies - is not likely to be reversed.

"They tell us this is a battle that went against us and we're just going to have to deal with it," Flanagan said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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