Senators Blast Bush Plan for Amtrak Funding

Several senators on Thursday criticized President Bush's proposal to give Amtrak (search) no money next year, while the railroad submitted a request to Congress for $1.82 billion.

Amtrak is receiving $1.2 billion from Congress this year.

Chairman David Laney (search) said that without a boost in money the railroad would have no cash by year's end in light of Acela Express brake problems that have sidelined the profitable high-speed fleet until this summer.

A majority of senators on the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee were critical of Bush's plan and sympathetic to Amtrak, favoring giving the railroad money next year. No specific amount was mentioned.

"How did the administration come up with such a ridiculous proposal?" asked Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., subcommittee chairman. "I was extremely stunned and disappointed that such a proposal was made."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the Bush administration's stance that zero funding of Amtrak is a "call to action" was baseless.

"Zero funding means you want to shut the place down," Dorgan said.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, in a statement issued after the committee hearing, said Amtrak itself has now acknowledged "its current business model is unsustainable and in need of serious reform."

Calling Amtrak "a dying railroad," Mineta said Bush's proposal would provide it solvency and new life. He said Amtrak and the president agree that intercity passenger rail should be saved.

The Transportation Department's (search) general counsel, Jeffrey Rosen, said changes need to be made in Amtrak "before we spend one more taxpayer dollar to prop up a fundamentally broken system."

Bush's proposal would set aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad stopped operating.

Two Republican senators — Ted Stevens of Alaska and John Sununu of New Hampshire — were critical of Amtrak, saying the railroad has not shown that its 15 long-distance train routes are profitable.

Lott said the subcommittee would study three proposals — from the Bush administration, Amtrak and the DOT's inspector general — and work to present a bipartisan bill regarding Amtrak's funds.

Kenneth Mead, the DOT's inspector general, said Amtrak needs at least $1.4 billion to maintain current operations. But Mead said $2 billion would put Amtrak in a better operating position in the long run.

All the plans included proposals calling for states to chip in to keep Amtrak running. Bush's plan calls for a 50-50 federal state partnership, Amtrak is asking states for 20 percent of funds, and Mead's plan seeks between 15 to 30 percent from states.

"States can't afford at this time to simply pick up the federal contribution to Amtrak," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who supports funding Amtrak and criticized Bush's 50-50 proposal. "Expecting them to do so would be yet another unfunded mandated, and it would sink state budgets in a sea of red ink."