White House Sends Congress Amtrak Privatization Plan

The Bush administration on Thursday sent Congress its plan to turn Amtrak (search) into a private operator, with a federal-state partnership supporting a railroad that would focus on running trains and would not maintain tracks or stations.

"This legislation is a lifeline to a dying railroad company," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta (search) said.

In addition to the federal-state partnership, the bill would authorize capital funds for projects on the Boston-Washington corridor, which accounts for nearly half of all passenger rail ridership, the Transportation Department (search) said.

"Congress has postponed saving Amtrak long enough. It's time to act," Mineta said.

The measure would relieve Amtrak of the responsibility for maintaining tracks, stations and other infrastructure. The railroad would concentrate on keeping the trains moving.

Regional, state or local authorities would have the power to make decisions about services that best meets their local needs, the department said.

The federal government would offer 50-50 matching grants to states for infrastructure projects to improve passenger rail service. Also, states could choose which company meets their service rail needs.

"No matter which carrier a state chooses, the legislation guarantees that the winning passenger rail operator will have access to the train tracks in their region owned by freight or any other railroad entity," according to a department statement.

In his 2006 budget, President Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy and setting aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad ceased operating. In the budget year that ends Sept. 30, Amtrak is receiving $1.2 billion in operating subsidies and capital investment.

Joseph Boardman, Bush's nominee to head the Federal Railroad Administration, said on Tuesday that Congress and the administration should be able to come up with money for the railroad.

Sen. Jon Corzine (search), who has urged the administration to fully fund Amtrak, said the measure is just the administration's way of dismantling Amtrak.

"This latest gimmick by the president — to claim fiscal discipline by lowering numbers and shifting the cost burdens to states and communities — is ill-fated, ill-conceived and just plain wrong," said Corzine, D-N.J.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black declined comment.