WASHINGTON – A new Bush administration proposal for Amtrak's (search) future could end the railroad's monopoly on intercity passenger rail travel, a congressional supporter says.
Officially, the legislation is intended to eliminate unprofitable long-distance routes and force states to give more financial support to intercity passenger rail.
Amtrak has been under severe pressure from Congress and the Bush administration to end its dependency on government cash and start turning a profit. The passenger railroad has received government subsidies every year of its 32-year existence.
Michael Jackson, outgoing deputy transportation secretary, described the broad outlines of the plan to the Senate Commerce Committee (search) in April. He said a bill would soon follow, and that proposal is going to Congress Tuesday.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a senior member of the House Transportation subcommittees that deal with railroads and transportation infrastructure, 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," Mica said.
In addition to encouraging private investors to build railroads, the bill would improve service and promote high-speed rail service between cities, Mica said. Congestion would be eased at airports, he said, because people would prefer to take fast trains for trips under 500 miles.
The plan would give states responsibility to form regional railroads that would hire Amtrak or other private companies to run the trains. The federal government would help pay for some of those operations, Mica said, although the goal would be to minimize subsidies.
The Boston-to-Washington line would be treated differently because it's the only large segment of railroad that Amtrak owns. Under the plan, the Northeast Corridor (search) 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 all passenger railroads require government subsidies.
"No intercity rail system has ever made money," said Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., senior Democrat on the subcommittee that finances Amtrak.
The House Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to allot Amtrak $900 million. Amtrak says it needs double that just to maintain existing service this year.
Mica said such a shortfall would create a crisis and force Congress to restructure the railroad.
But Amtrak's supporters in the House say at least 219 House members, a majority, have signed a letter supporting the railroad's $1.8 billion request.
A key question about the administration's bill is how much it will be willing to spend on a restructured passenger rail system.
Amtrak, formed in 1971 from defunct passenger railroads, serves 500 communities in 46 states on 22,000 miles of track.