Bush Administration Proposes Reduced Role for Amtrak in Passenger Rail

The Bush administration's long-awaited plan for Amtrak would give states more authority to operate and finance passenger rail service while opening the door to competition, officials familiar with the proposal said Wednesday.

The plan would also gradually remove Amtrak as owner of 366 miles of tracks in the Boston-Washington corridor and put them under the control of an unspecified public partnership.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta was expected to outline the administration's vision in a speech Thursday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Congressional officials who learned about the plan on Wednesday say it aligns with some of the ideas of the Amtrak Reform Council, which Congress formed in 1997 to monitor Amtrak's finances.

The council, a major critic of Amtrak's current structure and management, recommended breaking up the rail company and shifting much of its duties to states and private companies, effectively ending Amtrak's three-decade monopoly over intercity train service.

While the White House plan would give the nation's governors more authority over passenger train service, it also may force them to pick up more of its cost. According to the Amtrak Reform Council, Amtrak spent roughly $2.3 billion to operate its trains last year, and states kicked in about $123 million.

Lawmakers have pressed the White House for months to outline its ideas for Amtrak and for passenger rail. Congress is to vote this year on Amtrak's future.

Amtrak's immediate survival is a more pressing matter. The railway is preparing for a possible nationwide shutdown in July if it fails to close a $200 million budget shortfall.

Amtrak President David Gunn this week asked the Federal Railroad Administration to help it get the money by granting a loan guarantee. He said Amtrak and the FRA are still working on the idea.

Rep. Jack Quinn, chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on railroads, met with Mineta Wednesday about the administration's plans but also urged a solution to the immediate crisis, said Quinn's spokesman, Michael Tetuan.

Quinn "knows there needs to be reform and will work with the administration," Tetuan said, "but Amtrak needs money now."

He said Quinn left his meeting with Mineta satisfied that the administration also wants to avert a passenger rail shutdown.

Amtrak tried but failed to meet a 1997 order by Congress to wean itself from the government subsidies it has needed for its entire 31-year existence.

Amtrak is seeking $1.2 billion from the federal government in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, a dramatic increase over previous years.

The House Transportation subcommittee on railroads has voted to give Amtrak the money it is seeking.

The Senate Commerce Committee has gone further, approving a bill by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that would keep Amtrak operating for five more years and spend $4.6 billion a year on improving and expanding rail service.