WASHINGTON – Politicians, union representatives and environmentalists rallied in Baltimore's stately Penn Station for a bill that would provide Amtrak (search) $6 billion over the next three years.
President Bush has proposed cutting all federal funding for Amtrak, which is getting $1.2 billion this year and has requested $1.82 billion for 2006.
"If we don't properly fund Amtrak, then Amtrak goes down the tubes," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and member of the House Transportation Committee. "Amtrak is safe, it is clean, it is efficient. And yet, the president has basically written Amtrak off."
The politicians complained that airlines, ports and highway projects receive billions of federal dollars, while the railroad, which carries 25 million annual riders to 500 stations in 46 states, languishes.
The bill has yet to be considered by the full House of Representatives. In the meantime, Amtrak is facing tough opposition from critics who say the federal government can't afford to subsidize a poorly run passenger rail system (search).
In May, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (search) urged Amtrak to immediately cut costs, saying the railroad could be as much as $40 million in debt by Sept. 30.
Rick Inclima, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which represents about 2,000 workers responsible for maintaining Amtrak tracks, said 20,000 union members across the country are "essentially running Amtrak on a shoestring."
Environmentalists, meanwhile, worry about the consequences if millions are forced to abandon trains for already congested highways.
A few feet away from the rally, 68-year-old Mabel Baylor waited patiently in the station's lobby for a train to Virginia.
"I would really suffer without Amtrak," said Baylor, who has only flown once in her life. "It's really convenient and comfortable. An airplane, you've got to be there hours early to clear security. You can't talk and relax like you can on a train."