WASHINGTON – Congressional critics say President Bush's six-year plan to force the states to pick up more of Amtrak's costs ignores short-term problems that could shut down the railroad.
Bush sent a bill to Congress on Monday that would end Amtrak's monopoly on intercity passenger rail service, minimize federal subsidies and promote competition among railroad operators.
It carries no price tag and has no details about what money-losing lines would be eliminated or what new rail corridors would be promoted.
"If the Bush White House gets its way, all the reform proposals in the world won't matter because there won't be any operating railroad to reform," said Sen. Patty Murray (search), D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the Appropriations transportation subcommittee.
Transportation officials who briefed reporters on the bill said the Bush administration is only willing to give the railroad $900 million next year unless it is restructured. The House Appropriations Committee last week voted to allot $900 million.
Amtrak (search) says it needs twice that amount to keep the trains running.
The plan was welcomed by those who agree with Bush that Amtrak needs to be restructured to reduce its dependence on federal money. The passenger railroad has received $26.6 billion in government subsidies during its 32-year existence.
Sen. John McCain R-Ariz., said reform is clearly needed.
"Since 1970, the American taxpayers have invested over $26 billion in Amtrak, which still has less than a 1 percent share of the intercity travel market and continues to operate routes with losses of over $400 per passenger," said McCain, chairman of the committee that funds Amtrak.
The Bush administration's goal is reliable trains that run shorter distances between cities, relieving congestion on highways and at airports.
The transportation officials conceded that Bush's plan had never been tried before and requires a "leap of faith" that it will work.
Amtrak President David Gunn said he wasn't consulted or briefed on the proposed legislation.
Gunn said trains stopped running for 24 hours between New York City and Boston when overhead wires fell apart two weeks ago. Electric engines are going out of service as fast as they can be rebuilt and two bridges in Connecticut are in danger of failing, which would stop service between Boston and New Haven, Conn.
"The gravity of this immediate need to maintain Amtrak's operational reliability vastly overshadows any debate over the plan introduced today," Gunn said.
"The Bush administration, which is represented on Amtrak's board of directors, has averted crisis over the past 12 months, even when this approach has taken us to the eleventh hour," he said.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, chairwoman of the surface transportation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, plans to introduce legislation this week that will spend substantially more than the administration proposes.
"If you turn Amtrak over to the states, it's gone," Hutchison said.
The Bush administration proposal doesn't end federal subsidies, but it does seek to minimize them.
Under the plan, over six years Amtrak would become three companies: a private passenger rail company that runs trains under contract to states; a company that operates and maintains the Northeast Corridor (search); and a government corporation that would retain Amtrak's rights to use freight railroad tracks and its corporate name.
With the House already gone for the August recess and the Senate planning to leave Friday, the administration will only have September to push its bill through Congress before the fiscal year ends.
Amtrak, formed in 1971 from defunct passenger railroads, serves 500 communities in 46 states on 22,000 miles of track.