- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

The board overseeing Amtrak's troubled finances recommended yesterday that the federal government take over most of Amtrak's property and competing companies be given franchises to operate its routes.

The Amtrak Reform Council also recommended that the amount of congressional subsidies be tied to the number of passengers the railroad carries. Currently, Congress funds Amtrak according to the needs it can demonstrate.

"The subsidy ought to be paid out in a way that creates an incentive for Amtrak to improve quality and operate efficiently," said John Norquist, a reform council member and mayor of Milwaukee.

The reform council's decisions yesterday took place during its last meeting before a scheduled Feb. 7 deadline for delivering recommendations to Congress. Congress organized the reform council in 1997 to monitor Amtrak's progress toward a five-year deadline for becoming financially self-sufficient on its operating costs.

The deadline was Dec. 2 and the reform council earlier acknowledged Amtrak could not make the deadline. Their finding meant they had 90 days to develop a plan for restructuring the national passenger-rail system.

Although the reform council's recommendations are not binding on Congress, they are expected to frame the debate later this year about restructuring the railroad.

Other reform council recommendations would give greater authority to states to determine how passenger rail is operated regionally and grant Amtrak a tax credit for investing more money in its deteriorating infrastructure.

"The Congress has trained Amtrak to lie to them," Mr. Norquist said. Typically, Amtrak's directors ask for money from Congress saying it is needed to improve tracks, stations, tunnels and equipment, but then use it to pay day-to-day operating costs, such as salaries of employees, he said.

"We really need to fix that problem," Mr. Norquist said.

Under the reform council's recommendations, Amtrak would be nothing more than an operating company. In other words, its employees would run the daily operations, but Amtrak could own nothing more than the trains.

The tracks and other infrastructure would be maintained by a separate government-owned company.

An ultimate goal is for Amtrak to be as privatized as possible under the "preferred option" the reform council approved.

Another option it plans to submit to Congress would allow either a national or regional monopoly to operate passenger-rail service.

A third option would let Amtrak operate the Northeast Corridor and other prime corridors but grant franchises on other routes.

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