PHILADELPHIA – Critics of a Bush administration plan to privatize Amtrak (search) say the proposal would effectively kill the passenger railway system by shifting its costs to the states, which say they don't have the funds to run it.
Under the administration proposal sent to Congress on Monday, Amtrak would become a private passenger rail company under contract to states, which would form multistate compacts to run passenger railroads. The states would pay for the operating costs, although those costs weren't outlined in the plan.
Backers of the legislation say it would improve service through competition and encourage private investors to build railroads and promote high-speed rail service between cities.
Critics wonder who will guarantee the consistency of the safety and maintenance of the lines and how states with budget troubles will pay for it. Some say the legislation is meant to kill Amtrak.
"It's like dropping a nuclear bomb on the intercity rail passenger business," said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (search). "It's going to be sold to the public as a way to reduce the cost, and the only way I see to reduce the cost is if the service disappears."
Amtrak President David Gunn (search), in a memo Wednesday to Amtrak's board of directors, wrote that the only thing he's seen similar to the administration's plan is the privatization of Britain's rail system in the 1990s.
"In that case, it took years to accomplish and it consumed billions of dollars in government funding," Gunn wrote. "You have been given one year and no money."
Gunn, in testimony to Congress last year, called proposals to privatize or restructure Amtrak "exercises in problem-avoidance."
Many critics argue that, like highways and the air transport system, railways don't stop at state borders and thus require federal oversight and funding.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., in a telephone interview Wednesday, asked what a train traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York would do if Pennsylvania, for instance, didn't have the funds to operate its portion of Amtrak.
"Can they still run through Pennsylvania?" Biden asked. "Who maintains the signals in the tunnels? Who maintains the safety?"
Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said his agency hadn't yet studied the plan, but said Texas doesn't have enough money to pay for its current transportation projects.
"We think rails are important, but thinking something is important and being able to pay for it are two different things," he said.
Tom Hickey, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, said states needed to see more financial details. "It's difficult to see how states could take on this kind of cost right now," he said.
Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Ian Satter said his department thought interstate services should be run by the federal government.
Republican senators on Wednesday announced a six-year, $60 billion plan to help Amtrak, countering the Bush administration proposal. Their plan would give Amtrak the $2 billion in annual operating subsidies it has requested. The plan also calls for issuing $48 billion in bonds to raise money for repairs and track construction.
Biden said he didn't know if the Bush administration legislation would find support in Congress. He said he thought that constituencies connected to airlines and the highway system - which he said would benefit from an increased passenger load if Amtrak ceased to exist - likely support the legislation.
"This is just designed to kill Amtrak," Biden said. "It gives up on a national rail system at a time when the population is growing, at a time when the airways are overly subsidized."