INSIDE WASHINGTON/Funds needed to get rail service on track
City and county officials are calling on the federal government to substantially increase funding for Amtrak in fiscal year 2003. Rail officials predict that, without additional money, they will have to eliminate 18 Amtrak routes, affecting communities as diverse as New York; Savannah, Ga.; Portland, Ore.; and Kansas City, Mo.
In addition to affecting some urban areas, the current financial shortfall could have an impact on service in rural areas, says Javier Gonzalez, president of the National Association of Counties and commissioner for Santa Fe County, N.M. “If Congress does not provide adequate funding for Amtrak, rural counties will lose rail service,” he warns. “Congress must increase funding for Amtrak so that current levels of service can be maintained and capital improvements can be made.”
Amtrak officials say they need $1.2 billion to ensure that current routes continue to run beyond September. The White House has proposed providing Amtrak with a $521 million appropriation for 2003, the same amount of money it has allocated the train system since 2000.
That is not enough, says George Warrington, Amtrak’s outgoing president and chief executive officer. “A lesser appropriation [than the one requested] would require a series of business actions that, depending on the shortfall, could include such steps as further deferrals of capital investment and elimination of some services,” he explains.
Amtrak, which celebrates its 31-year anniversary this month, lost a record $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2001. The rail service operates in 46 states and serves more than 500 stations, according to its Web site. Amtrak trains do not operate in Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming, but Amtrak provides motor coach service in Wyoming.
In addition to having financial problems, Amtrak needs to be restructured, according to the Amtrak Reform Council, an independent review board chartered by Congress. “The council’s view is that there should be a bright future for passenger rail service in America,” says Council Chairman Gilbert Carmichael. “But the council believes that passenger rail service will never achieve its potential as provided and managed by Amtrak. A new and different program is needed to move forward.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agrees with the council and has introduced legislation that would dissolve Amtrak in its current form and cut routes that are not financially viable. The legislation would, among other things, create three agencies — Amtrak Maintenance, Amtrak Operations and Intercity Rail Reservations — spun off from the original. The agencies would operate as private businesses with the goal of making a profit.
Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) has offered a competing bill that would keep Amtrak intact. With strong backing from local officials, the Hollings bill proposes a $4.6 billion appropriation over the next five years to help improve the rail system.
Amtrak supporters — local governments among them — contend that the rail system has been overlooked as a critical part of the nation’s transportation system. They praise Amtrak for the service it provided following the Sept. 11 airplane groundings, and they say the rail system is crucial for economic development as well as pollution reduction.
“The time has come to increase our investment in our passenger rail infrastructure and build out the third leg of our transportation system,” says New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We see a powerful linkage between a strong Amtrak, a growing national inter-city passenger rail system, and the long-term viability of our local metropolitan economies.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.