- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

Members of Congress said the Bush administration plan announced yesterday for revamping Amtrak and rescuing it from a shutdown as soon as next week was unrealistic in its goal of making the railroad financially self-sufficient.

Amtrak faces a budget crisis that could force the railroad to stop operating unless it gets government-guaranteed loans of at least $200 million by early next week.

"I want to make clear that unless the administration changes its budget request for Amtrak, both for the remainder of this year and for next year, there will be nothing to discuss other than the costs associated with liquidating the railroad," said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

The subcommittee held a hearing yesterday to consider an Amtrak request to guarantee bank loans for the railroad so it can continue operating through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

"If we don't have this issue resolved by next week, we're out of time," Amtrak President David Gunn said during the hearing. "At that point, we begin shutting the system down."

Asked by the senators how much of Amtrak's system would need to stop operating, Mr. Gunn said, "All Amtrak service would stop."

Without the government backing, Amtrak officials said they cannot secure the loans they need.

The Bush administration wants any additional money for Amtrak this year to include reforms to make the national passenger railroad support more of its own operations.

In addition, the long-range reform plan announced yesterday by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta would turn more of Amtrak's operations over to states and private companies. It also would limit funding next year to $521 million, the same amount Amtrak is getting this year.

Amtrak officials have said they need at least $1.2 billion in the next fiscal year to continue operating.

The Bush administration wants to break up Amtrak to allow states to run high-speed rail between major cities, even if that means cutting long-distance and rural routes.

Private companies could win franchises to operate the intercity routes.

Mr. Mineta said spending more federal money on Amtrak would not solve the underlying problem of a flawed business model.

"The country can ill afford to throw billions of federal dollars at Amtrak and just hope its problems disappear," Mr. Mineta said.

"Thirty years' experience should teach us that merely hoping for better performance is a doomed approach."

Congress created Amtrak out of a conglomeration of bankrupt regional railroads in 1971 as a for-profit corporation. It has never made money. Last year, it lost $1.1 billion.

Mr. Mineta's announcement of the Bush administration plan ran into immediate criticism from some members of Congress.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, predicted the Bush administration plan would fail to win support it needs in Congress.

"It's little more than a rehash of discredited proposals," Mr. Oberstar said. "What Amtrak needs is money."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said the Bush administration plan jeopardizes national security by risking a shutdown of Amtrak.

"The key to any national defense system is redundancy in transportation," Mr. Nadler said. "No transportation system can survive without subsidies."

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