WASHINGTON – Some say you could set a clock to it.
No, not Amtrak's departure and arrival times, but its yearly funding requests.
Every year, Amtrak (search) asks Congress for money to stay afloat. Congress haggles over every dollar, and in the end the railroad giant gets what it needs. This year, things may or may not be the same.
Last week, the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee passed a budget slashing Amtrak's fiscal year 2004 request by more than two-thirds from $1.8 billion — twice President Bush's request — to $580 million. The passenger rail service could make out with its full request in the end, but not if subcommittee Chairman Ernest Istook gets the final say.
“Amtrak always complains that it does not have the money, but [it] does not take serious steps to resolve its problems,” Istook, R-Okla., told Foxnews.com.
The slashed budget passed Istook’s panel by a voice vote despite opposition from ranking member Rep. John Olver, D-Mass.
Istook said he’s tired of the go-around each year, and would rather see the money go into valuable highway projects.
“Amtrak said they would be self-sufficient right now,” Istook said. “Now they’re trying to say it’s all gloom and doom. They need to trim and cut back.”
Amtrak officials say that a recently issued five-year reorganization plan under the auspices of new CEO David Gunn (search) has promised to turn the operation upside down, tightening inefficiencies and finding ways to maximize its strengths.
"We are doing the best we can,” said Cliff Black, Amtrak spokesman, noting that Amtrak is asking for $1.8 billion per year for the next five years to help get the operation out of $3 billion in debt and to pay for needed infrastructure repairs.
“[The plan] is very specific [about] how every dime needs to be spent,” said Black, who added that Amtrak hit a record high number of passengers from March through May, propelling toward its 24 million passenger annual ridership. Despite the good numbers, Black said the company needs the subsidies — like any major transportation system in the country — to survive.
“Our position is, running a national passenger company — even a regional passenger company — costs taxpayer money,” he said.
Istook expressed confidence that it will pass the full committee next week. However, if a recent letter signed by 219 House members calling for full funding of Amtrak is any indication, the smaller budget might be inflated once it hits the House floor.
"Right now is the time to give Amtrak the money they need for capital improvements and operational expenses in order to achieve stability," said Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., who signed the House letter. "The level of funding in the House bill is not adequate, and should not survive the legislative process."
Appropriators also have to contend with House Transportation Committee members who recently voted to authorize funding the railroad at $6 billion over the next three years. In the Senate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, successfully added $2 billion a year for three years to the transportation spending bill in the Appropriations Committee, and plans to introduce in the coming weeks a bill giving Amtrak even more resources.
Since Amtrak was formed in 1971, taxpayers have funded it to the tune of $25 billion, making it a quasi-government service, like the United States Postal Service. Though at its establishment, every intention was to turn it toward self-sufficiency, Amtrak has each year accrued debt.
Amtrak officials and supporters in Congress say the service suffers from the high cost of maintaining antiquated rail lines while supporting several passenger lines in parts of the country that are losing money. Critics say that Amtrak is working on a broken model and until serious reform is undertaken — like privatizing parts of the passenger operation — Amtrak will never be solvent.
Keith Ashdown, an analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense (search) who has been monitoring the Amtrak dilemma for years, said efficiency has improved under CEO Gunn. But, he said Congress lost a great opportunity when it tossed out recommendations for privatization made last year by the Amtrak Reform Council (search), and both sides need to get serious about real change.
“Let’s be honest and put all of the cards on the table,” Ashdown said. “The way to do this is to budget properly to keep the routes going, and then you impose real standards on these guys."