WASHINGTON – Amtrak (search) would have to end all of its cross-country routes, service between Chicago and New Orleans and the Auto Train to Florida under big cuts in taxpayer subsidies approved Wednesday by a House subcommittee.
The proposal was part of a transportation bill that would reduce Amtrak's budget by more than half and limit federal subsidies to $30 per passenger per ride.
The cuts, which would require House and Senate approval, would not apply to most Amtrak service in the Northeast corridor and shorter corridor routes in the Midwest and California.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Joe Knollenberg, said those routes account for 80 percent of Amtrak's ridership. He said some money-losing routes, such as the Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and Orlando, require federal subsidies of more than $400 per passenger.
"Congress will no longer sanction extremely unprofitable routes," said Knollenberg, R-Mich.
Amtrak generally has stronger support in the Senate, where its money-losing routes serve many states represented by majority Republicans.
Even Knollenberg seemed to predict that his proposal would be modified later in negotiations with the Senate.
The plan drew protests from subcommittee Democrats who said it would unfairly punish rural residents.
"There will be 31 states who lose all passenger rail service completely," said Rep. John Olver, D-Mass.
Knollenberg said the measure would not mandate the closure of any routes and that state and local governments could decide to subsidize them.
The overall bill would provide $550 million for Amtrak, including $110 million for passenger subsidies on money-losing routes. Amtrak requested $1.8 billion in federal funds for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 and says the House proposal would force a shutdown.
During last year's budget cycle, lawmakers funded Amtrak at $1.2 billion.
"The practical impact of $550 million in federal support would be the same as zero funding for Amtrak, and they know it," said Amtrak's president and chief executive, David Gunn.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta (search) said in a statement that the subcommittee's action "sends the same signal as that of the administration: Amtrak must reform.
The administration contends that eliminating operating subsidies would leave the passenger rail system with stronger routes and entice subsidies from local governments.
Among the routes that would lose federal subsidies are the Empire Builder, which runs across the Northern Plains; the Lake Shore Limited from the East Coast to Chicago; and the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland, Calif.
In his February budget, Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy and setting aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad were to cease operating.