Amtrak 'Very, Very Close' to Resolution

Rail travelers have been given a reprieve from standing on the platform waiting for an Amtrak train that may never arrive.

Though a deal has not been reached yet, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta said Wednesday that the federally-subsidized rail line will receive the money it needs to keep from shutting down.

"$200 million is the minimum but more will be needed" to fund the rail company up to the new budget year beginning Oct. 1, Mineta told Republican congressman at the Main Street Partnership breakfast.

Amtrak President David Gunn, who had warned that a shutdown could begin as early as this week, said the railroad can keep running into next week but "our cash situation becomes critical" next Thursday or Friday. Thursday is July 4, traditionally a busy holiday for Amtrak.

Mineta said negotiations to prevent a shutdown should be completed by the end of the day. 

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill suggested Tuesday that money could be added to an emergency supplemental bill now under consideration.

"If Amtrak goes bankrupt, and halts its operations, it means complete chaos all across the nation from the west to the east, and it will cost far more than $205 million to get it running again," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who ushered the $31 billion supplemental bill through the Senate.

President Bush previously said that the supplemental bill currently in a House-Senate conference is too large as it is, but Mineta broke away from negotiations with Amtrak and union officials Tuesday to say that Amtrak will never be left out in the cold.

"No one wants to see Amtrak die," Mineta said. "We're coming along very well. We're very, very close to coming to a solution to help Amtrak."

In a letter to Mineta on Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, wrote, "I'm willing to consider a direct appropriation under certain conditions."

Amtrak Vice Chairman Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor, said an easier solution would be for the Federal Railroad Administration, part of the Transportation Department, to sign off on Amtrak's request for a loan guarantee.

"A stroke of a pen will do this," Dukakis said.

Though Amtrak picked up the slack when people feared flying following the Sept. 11 attacks, it still faces a $1.1 billion loss for 2001 and is nowhere near complying with a 1997 congressional mandate that ordered the rail line to become self-sufficient in five years.

A shutdown of Amtrak also could affect commuter railroads serving hundreds of thousands of people. Amtrak owns tracks and tunnels used by some commuter rail lines, and operates other systems for state or regional authorities.

In a speech that had been scheduled prior to the crisis, Mineta said the administration wants a plan that looks beyond immediate problems.

"The problem is we don't just want to deal with crisis to crisis to crisis, and so what I have done is to advance some reforms if we are to sustain Amtrak's operations, and say 'yes we're willing to come up with the money," he told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Mineta did not outline any of the details, but said Wednesday that the administration is interested in getting the train up and running before deciding on long-term fixes.

"It would seem to me we should not be imposing a huge list of conditions" before providing the bailout, Mineta said, adding that he is pleased with Gunn's leadership since he has taken the reins. Gunn has slashed the budget and let go of a team of vice presidents.

Union officials said Tuesday's negotiations were focused on resolving Amtrak's immediate cash crisis and not on wide-ranging reforms proposed by Mineta and rejected by union members last week.

"We were reassured today that the secretary of transportation and the administration are going to do what is necessary in the next 24 hours to make sure trains are running between now and the end of the week," said Edward Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department.

At the end of the day, union officials said they feel confident that they will be able to continue providing services to the rail's 60,000 daily passengers.

The administration's proposals included an end to federal operating subsidies; allowing competition for passenger rail; making states more responsible for paying for train service and replacing Amtrak as owner of the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, agreed on the need for changes but rejected the Bush administration's plan.

"Their reform package is a reform package for failure," Murray said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who supports the rail line, said: "I do think Amtrak has been badly managed. I think that they have not ever looked at the union contract. In the end I think it should be a state-federal partnership in a national system."

Amtrak officials remain optimistic that they will not face their first shutdown in 31 years, but again reiterated that time is of the essence.

"It would be days rather than weeks when we would have to make a final decision," said Amtrak Director of Special Projects Clifford Black.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.