Amtrak President: Bush Funding Proposal Would Shut Down Railroad

President Bush's proposal to give Amtrak (search) just over half what it is seeking in federal subsidies would shut the railroad down just as more passengers are taking the train, Amtrak President David Gunn (search) said Tuesday.

For fiscal 2005 starting in October, Amtrak asked for $1.798 billion, or about $300 million more than it had available for 2004. The new request includes a $570 million operating subsidy, repayment of a $100 million government loan and $791 million for replacing rails and ties, repairing bridges and overhauling major equipment.

Bush proposed giving the railroad $900 million in the new budget year.

"The president's number is a shutdown number," Gunn said during a meeting with reporters.

The Bush administration acknowledged Amtrak's improved performance but said more change was needed.

"The administration would support funding of up to $1.4 billion if the significant reforms included in the president's plan were enacted," a statement said.

Gunn, who took over at Amtrak 20 months ago, said he expects more than 25 million people will ride Amtrak during the current budget year, which began last Oct. 1, breaking the previous record of 24 million.

"We're moving at a very deliberate speed to restore a state of good repair," he said. "We're doing it at a pace that doesn't totally disrupt the railroad."

Much remains to be done, however. Tracks still need to be fixed to maintain high-speed service, sleeper cars need repair and three key bridges over rivers in Connecticut (search) must be replaced before they fail.

Gunn said he hopes Amtrak's improved performance will silence calls to restructure the railroad to make it less dependent on federal money.

Tight financial controls in 2003 left the railroad with $148 million in the bank. The work force was cut to 19,976 at the end of December from 23,393 in May 2002. Signal cables were replaced, bridges were retimbered and wrecked cars rebuilt.

Gunn said he does support an element of the Bush administration's proposal that would require the states to help pick up the tab for new rail corridors between cities. A plan to connect Portland, Ore., to Seattle with faster trains and more service is ready to go and awaiting a commitment of funds from the federal government, he said.

Though Congress gave Amtrak $600 million less than the $1.8 billion Gunn said it needed for 2004, the railroad's shortfall is only about $280 million, he said. That's because the railroad wasn't required to repay a $100 million loan it received to ward off a shutdown in the summer of 2002, and because it carried over $148 million from last year and revised the amount of interest it must pay on its debt.