Amtrak Board OKs Splitting Off Northeast Corridor

Amtrak's (search) chairman says splitting off the Northeast Corridor — the most heavily traveled portion of the system — under federal-state management is the only way to revitalize U.S. passenger rail service.

The railroad's board of directors approved a resolution authorizing joint management over service from Washington, D.C., to Boston. It would share maintenance costs while Amtrak operated the trains.

"We are ultimately headed toward an environment in which states will end up covering some portion of state (rail) operations," David M. Laney said Thursday in a telephone interview from his Dallas law office.

The plan, voted on Sept. 22 but not announced publicly, came as a surprise to state officials. The resolution was first reported Wednesday in the newsletter of the United Rail Passenger Alliance of Jacksonville, Fla., which has been critical of Amtrak's management.

New Jersey's transportation commissioner, Jack Lettiere, said it would be unfair if Amtrak wanted the states to make capital contributions to a "system that is in a state of disrepair."

"I have grave concerns about this," he said.

A spokesman for Pennsylvania's Transportation Department, Kirk Wilson, said state officials were unaware of the decision although the idea has been suggested for several years.

The plan was denounced by Amtrak's supporters, who say it will push the railroad to the brink of collapse. President Bush has said he wants to cut all Amtrak subsidies and eventually create regional rail service (search) managed by states.

"This administration has been intent on crippling Amtrak since George Bush was sworn into office," said Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J. "This latest gimmick by President Bush (search) — to claim fiscal discipline by lowering the numbers and shifting the cost burdens to states and communities — is ill-fated, ill-conceived and just plain wrong."

Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for more Amtrak subsidies, questioned the board's decision in light of its statement in April that a subsidiary was not needed.

"The secrecy part raises suspicions," Capon said.

Laney denied any secrecy on the board's part, saying the board "is not in the habit of announcing board actions."

Congress would have to agree to transfer control of the Northeast Corridor. Laney said January is the board's targeted deadline to have the federal-state management set up.

Amtrak supporters are pushing for the passage of a Senate bill that would reduce Amtrak's operating subsidy by 40 percent but would give the railroad more money for improvements to tracks and equipment.

The Bush administration has called for no subsidies for Amtrak, but the House has approved an appropriation of nearly $1.2 billion for this budget year.