Railroad Advocates Urge More Federal Investment in Amtrak

The federal government should improve and expand Amtrak rather than splitting it into smaller, regional services, a railroad advocate group said Saturday.

The Bush administration Thursday announced its plans to pare Amtrak's national intercity network and distribute the rest of its rails and routes among states and public partnerships.

But the National Association of Railroad Passengers said federal spending on Amtrak should mirror investments in air travel and highways to ensure a balanced transportation system.

"We pay those costs to keep our airports in top shape. We should be paying to maintain our railroads," NARP President Alan Yorker said in Atlanta at a ceremony remembering former NARP President Jack Martin.

"The members of Congress are hearing loud and clear that Americans want this," Yorker said. "The question is how to finance it."

Finances are at the center of the debate over whether to fix, scrap or reinvent the nation's only operator of intercity passenger trains.

Amtrak President David Gunn said the agency by Wednesday will begin turning away passengers and moving trains to storage unless it gets a grant or loan to fill a $200 million budget shortfall.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Saturday he would consider emergency aid but didn't elaborate on what form of aid. Amtrak will convene its board of directors Monday, and Mineta is one of seven members.

Mineta proposed last week an end to the federal operating subsidies, allowing competition for passenger rail, making states more responsible for paying for train service, and replacing Amtrak as owner of the 366 miles of tracks running from Boston to Washington, known as the Northeast Corridor.

Yorker said states interested in passenger rail service would be wise to pitch in. But, he said, Amtrak should be viewed not as profitable company but as another government service, such as the interstate highway system.

"This is an investment, this is not a subsidy," he said.

NARP's recommendations include establishing a Rail Trust Fund, possibly funded by a 1-cent gasoline fuel tax, and handing over Amtrak's infrastructure — but not control — to the Transportation Department.