WASHINGTON – President Bush's nominee to run the nation's rail safety agency suggested Tuesday that the White House's proposal to end federal funding for Amtrak (search) would not go forward if the company changed its operations.
But the nominee, Joseph Boardman (search), did not specify changes Amtrak could make to improve its prospects for federal funding. He appeared before the Senate Commerce committee, which is weighing his nomination to lead the Federal Railroad Administration (search), a safety agency for passenger and freight rail operations.
Boardman, currently New York's transportation commissioner, criticized the Amtrak's financial state, but said Congress and the administration should be able to come up with money for the national rail service.
"If confirmed, I believe we have to work in collaboration, it will not be zero" (funding), Boardman said. "If we can reform and make the changes necessary to support rail transportation, that will not occur."
After the hearing, Boardman said he thought President Bush's proposal to eliminate the $1.2 billion Amtrak received last year had brought needed attention to Amtrak's condition. He said that both Bush and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (search) "believe that this is generating ... a debate about the future."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was supporting the nomination in part because Boardman "assured me he would fight hard for Amtrak."
Boardman's nomination is expected to be approved by the Senate, despite complaints from some lawmakers, particularly in the northeast, about Amtrak funding.
Amtrak's supporters say canceling federal funding would effectively end nationwide passenger rail service. The Bush administration has argued instead for the importance of regional intercity service, where ridership is more steady.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who has launched a counteroffensive to the administration's proposal to end Amtrak's federal funding, questioned Boardman as to whether New York could afford to maintain service through upstate New York westward to Niagara Falls and north to Montreal. Amtrak's operations in New York lost nearly $35 million last year, despite steady ridership of 900,000 between Albany and New York City.
"Will New York state be able to fully take over the responsibility of running the railroad from New York City on north?" Lautenberg said.
Boardman said, "I do not know whether they'll fully take over that responsibility but they will be committed to supporting intercity passenger rail."
Boardman said his top priority if given control of the FRA would be improving safety measures within the "very complex operation" of railways.