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Inside Politics

White House wants states to help fund intercity rail

Lawmakers protest proposed elimination of Amtrak funding

By Jeff Green

• Amtrak chief blasts budget
• Dems: Plans loaded with debt
• Bush sends budget to Congress
George W. Bush

(CNN) -- The Bush administration plans to introduce legislation to restructure the nation's passenger rail system, while Amtrak supporters in Congress fight to maintain funding in next fiscal year's budget.

Referring to the budget proposal as "a wake-up call," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said last week the administration would propose changes to shift funding responsibilities to the states, establishing "a 50-50 federal match for state investments in passenger rail infrastructure."

The budget proposed by President Bush this month would eliminate federal funding for Amtrak, setting aside $360 million to operate some trains only if the service faces a shutdown. Amtrak received $1.2 billion in federal funding for the current fiscal year. The new fiscal year begins October 1.

Amtrak's five-year strategic plan, approved by its board in June, called for $1.8 billion next year.

Two Democratic senators on Friday blasted Amtrak's board of directors for submitting its annual financial report to Congress a day earlier without a specific request for funding, which the lawmakers said was unprecedented.

Washington's Patty Murray and Hawaii's Daniel Inouye sent a letter to David Laney, chairman of Amtrak's board, whose five members were appointed by Bush.

"This year's report, as submitted by a largely new board, deliberately evades the question of the railroad's subsidy needs and instead praises the president's irresponsible proposal to bankrupt Amtrak as the 'right message.' Such an approach undermines Congress' ability to assess Amtrak's needs," the letter said.

"The Congress and Amtrak's 25 million annual riders expect the Amtrak board to responsibly and independently work to improve and sustain a safe and efficient passenger railroad -- not to dutifully line up behind the reckless policies of the president that appointed them."

Officially called the National Railroad Passenger Corp., Amtrak was established by Congress in 1970 and began operation in 1971. It serves more than 500 stations in 46 states -- all but Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Amtrak has some 20,000 employees and operates over more than 22,000 route miles. During fiscal year 2004, it carried a little more than 25 million passengers, an increase of more than 4 percent over 2003.

'Call to action'

But Mineta told reporters February 14 that Amtrak's funding system is "fundamentally irrational" and in need of "reform."

"The president's budget is that call to action," Mineta said. "And his proposed legislation is the solution."

While establishing a federal matching program to help states take over the funding for Amtrak's infrastructure -- "like stations and trains and track" -- Mineta said the legislation would open up train operations to competition.

The president pushed similar legislation in 2003 that failed to make it through Congress.

"Until such reforms are enacted, the administration will not propose continued federal subsidies for Amtrak," the Department of Transportation said in a statement accompanying the budget.

"With no subsidies, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy, which would likely lead to the elimination of inefficient operations and the reorganization of the railroad through bankruptcy procedures."

In a letter to employees that was made public, Amtrak President and CEO David Gunn blasted the budget proposal as "irresponsible and a surprising disappointment."

"They have no plan for Amtrak other than bankruptcy," Gunn said.

Bipartisan opposition

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, last week co-authored a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee calling for sufficient funding for Amtrak.

Thirty-five senators signed on, including six Republicans, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which said more senators are expected to sign a follow-up letter.

"At a time when Amtrak is setting ridership records, and congestion at our airports and on the highways continues to increase, we believe it would be a grave mistake to cut the essential federal funds that keep Amtrak operating," said the letter, which was sent to Sens. Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, and Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota.

"Without such funds or other intervening action, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy and shutdown of all Amtrak services, leaving millions of riders and thousands of communities without access to the essential and convenient transportation that Amtrak provides."

Burns is a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees transportation and interstate commerce issues.

Another Republican committee member who signed the letter, Maine's Olympia Snowe, said in a statement, "I believe that a strong passenger rail network must be part of the solution if we are to confront the great transportation challenges facing our country."

Critics point out that Amtrak has not achieved self-sufficiency despite about $29 billion in federal subsidies since 1971. But some supporters counter that other transportation sectors receive a greater share of federal funds.

"If Amtrak had the same opportunity to receive federal infrastructure investments as highway and aviation interests, with a federal match comparable to funds available to those modes of transportation, many more communities would avail themselves of passenger rail service," said the bipartisan letter, whose other author was Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, blasted the proposed budget soon after it was introduced by Bush, pointing to the overlap of transportation and energy policy.

"He's eliminated Amtrak at a time when we're talking about energy independence," the ranking Democrat on two Senate committees told CNN.

Gunn said in his letter that he was "committed" to securing funding.

"The president's proposal is only the start of a long legislative process," he said. "This process has a lot of twists and turns, and it always takes six to nine months to sort out. ...

"We have strong support in Congress and a lot of support across the country."

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