WASHINGTON - When Congress comes back from its August recess, one of its priorities, according to President Bush, should be derailing Amtrak.
The financially troubled national passenger rail service, which has lost taxpayer dollars since 1970, has been a target of many legislators for years on grounds it is costly, outmoded, and accounts for less than one percent of intercity passenger travel. But with both houses of Congress and the White House under Republican control, some think Amtrak's days finally could be numbered. Amtrak currently carries about 23 million passengers a year in 46 states over 23,000 miles of track and typically gets about $1.2 billion from the federal government each year.
What is most likely to happen early this autumn is a budget cutback that would put Amtrak in such financial straits that legislation to restructure it would get serious consideration on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, however, Amtrak says it would have to shut down.
With the United States facing a $400 billion deficit this year, Amtrak is one of the services most often mentioned for cuts. Not only is the White House determined that it is time to cut Amtrak loose, but some of the chairmen of key committees that have jurisdiction over Amtrak are in agreement that a major overhaul is needed. Mr. Bush's plan is to split Amtrak up, end operating subsidies, and let the states run passenger service.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is so concerned about the possible demise of Amtrak that its president and CEO, Kweisi Mfume, has made maintaining Amtrak a key goal of his organization. He argues that many black Americans who travel up and down the East Coast, often from the South to New York City, would be stuck without Amtrak because air fares are too expensive.
“Amtrak is the lifeblood transportation system for intercity rail commuters along the northeast Corridor,'' he says. “Full federal funding is the only acceptable solution for preserving and maintaining the pivotal service Amtrak provides. Placing the burden of paying for the railroad on the states, many of which are already financially strapped, is the wrong course to take.''
Details of the Bush plan, provided just before he and Congress went on their month-long vacation, call for cutting Amtrak's budget request for fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1, from $1.8 billion to $900 million. Amtrak would be reorganized so that the states most needing passenger rail service would have to pay for it, probably through regional compacts. The federal government would help pay for capital improvements, primarily the badly deteriorating rails in the Northeast. Under the plan, the states would decide what service would be offered.
The Bush plan is not without Republican critics. Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Conrad Burns of Montana, and Olympia Snowe of Maine have introduced a bill to provide Amtrak $12 billion in operating funds over a six-year period and also provide $48 billion in federally backed bonds to pay for capital improvements.
Allan Rutter, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, is undaunted, blitzing newspapers with a letters-to-the-editor campaign to try to convince taxpayers and legislators alike that the administration won't countenance putting a penny more into Amtrak than $900 million next year. The powerful House Appropriations Committee approved $900 million last month.
Mr. Rutter's letter said, “The Bush administration is proposing the first substantive intercity rail passenger service policy in decades. The major features of its proposal: More private-sector involvement, more state participation, and a more effective rail network.''
States should have more choices about rail services, he insisted. If they want more than the basics, they should pay for it as, he noted, the states of California, North Carolina, and Washington have done.
Many who work for and depend on Amtrak are braced for another up-to-the-brink repeat of what happened last year. Faced with a cutback in its operating subsidy from Congress, Amtrak prepared to shut down, saying it was out of money. Congress blinked and averted the shutdown.
But this year an 11th-hour bailout may not happen. A key member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Ernest Istook (R., Okla.), is a staunch foe of Amtrak. At a hearing he said, “There is a grave question whether Amtrak can continue to operate without dragging down the transportation system of the rest of the country”
There is almost total agreement that Congress will not come through with the $1.8 billion Amtrak says it must have and that even $1.4 billion is in doubt. Amtrak President David Gunn said that if $900 million is all Congress provides, passenger rail service will have to be shut down.
White House Office of Management and Budget officials say that President Bush is not willing to accept the $1.8 billion figure and is determined to lay out a plan that will settle Amtrak's future.
One federal transportation official stressed that Amtrak was never supposed to be a federally subsidized national rail service but an independent, self-sufficient service.