WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush wants to keep the nation's passenger railroad on track, but at a cost to some nationwide service.
Bush's long-awaited plan to eliminate Amtrak's unprofitable long-distance routes and force states to spend more on intercity service will be submitted to Congress today.
His intention is to solve Amtrak's continuing fiscal problems, which have led to annual $1 billion operating deficits.
Critics of the administration's approach say Amtrak's troubles stem from years of underinvestment in rails and equipment, and that all passenger railroads require government subsidy.
"No intercity rail system has ever made money," Rep. John Olver of Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that funds Amtrak, said recently.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a senior member of the House transportation committee that sets infrastructure policy, was briefed on the administration's proposal last week.
"If properly implemented, this could be as dramatic as the establishment of the Interstate highway system in the Eisenhower years," said Mica, who has drawn up his own Amtrak restructuring plan.
Mica said the bill would improve service, encourage private investors to build railroads and promote high-speed rail service between cities. Congestion would be eased at airports because people would prefer to take fast trains for trips under 500 miles, he said.
The plan would give states the responsibility to form regional railroads that would hire Amtrak or other operators to run the trains. The federal government would help fund some of those operations, Mica said, though the goal would be to minimize subsidies.
The popular Northeast Corridor line between Boston and Washington would be treated differently because it's the only large segment of rail that Amtrak owns. Under the plan, the Northeast Corridor would be broken into three entities: a compact between the federal and state government to lease and improve the railroad infrastructure; a company to operate the trains; and a company to maintain the tracks and equipment.
Amtrak at first would perform the latter two functions on the Northeast Corridor, but eventually would have to compete with other companies.
Critics say such restructuring is necessary because Amtrak loses about $1 billion a year, thanks in part to money-losing long-distance lines like the Sunset Limited between Orlando and Los Angeles. They point to the railroad's increased indebtedness over the past few years and the failure of Acela high-speed rail trains to reach average speeds of 150 mph that were promised.
Supporters say Amtrak's troubles stem from years of underinvestment in tracks and equipment, and that all passenger railroads require government subsidies.
Jerry Smith of Galata, Mont., chairman of a group called Save Amtrak, said Monday that financial involvement by the state would be "impossible under current economic circumstances."
"People need to decide now if they really want rail service," he said. "Once the train is gone, the likelihood of it coming back is zero to slim."
Amtrak's Empire Builder passenger train runs across northern Montana on its route between Chicago and Seattle.
The House Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to allot Amtrak $900 million, half of what the railroad says it needs to maintain existing service this year.
Mica said such a funding shortfall would create a crisis and force Congress to restructure the railroad.
But Amtrak's supporters say at least 219 House members — a majority — have signed a letter supporting its $1.8 billion request.
A key question about the administration's proposal is how much it will be willing to spend on a restructured passenger rail system.
Amtrak, formed in 1971 from defunct private passenger railroads, serves 500 communities in 46 states on 22,000 miles of track.
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