- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

A shutdown of Amtrak would force thousands of commuters onto Washington-area highways and airlines, strand thousands of others, lead to layoffs and deprive the region of an economic staple.
Amtrak and the commuter railroads that share its track remove the equivalent of a lane of rush-hour traffic from the Capital Beltway and connecting highways.
Amtrak President David Gunn said last night that the railroad's board would decide July 4 or 5 whether to cease operations. Only a $200 million federal loan guarantee or supplemental funding can stop the shutdown, prompting warnings from state and local officials about its consequences.
"A shutdown of Amtrak will seriously impact commuters in Northern Virginia, many of whom are federal employees," Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner said in a letter to President Bush yesterday. Commuter rail passengers would be forced to drive, "exacerbating gridlock and air pollution in the Washington, D.C., region," he said.
Senate Democrats urged President Bush yesterday to give Amtrak $205 million in emergency funding. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said a solution was "very, very close" and likely to be announced today.
If a bailout fails to arrive in time, all rail service except subway trains to Union Station would stop. More than 12,000 daily commuters ride Virginia Railway Express (VRE) trains into Union Station. Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) adds 15,000 customers between Baltimore and Washington.
"It is important," according to Jean Sadler, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
In addition, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Amtrak's ridership has grown. It carries 65 percent of the passengers who choose between airlines and rail for trips between Washington and New York.
"Those people would definitely go to the plane," said Paul Weyrich, vice chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council. "There just simply isn't the capacity on the air shuttles to handle all those people. You would have a real problem there."
The airlines see Amtrak's loss as their gain.
"Since 9/11, there's been a precipitous drop off in the number of airline passengers," said Dave Castelveter, U.S. Airways spokesman. "We've been aggressively trying to attract those passengers back to the shuttle routes."
U.S. Airways operates hourly shuttle flights along the Northeast Corridor from Washington airports. Although the number of Amtrak passengers who would switch to airlines is "speculative," Mr. Castelveter said, "We have capacity."
Thousands of new motorists on the Beltway and connecting roadways would become an obvious problem during the morning rush hour, Mr. Weyrich said. A typical highway lane can carry 5,000 cars an hour.
Mr. Weyrich is a former congressional aide who helped organize Amtrak as a national passenger railroad in 1971. Earlier this year, the Amtrak Reform Council recommended an organizational restructuring that the Bush administration is using as the cornerstone of its policy that any additional federal funds for Amtrak must include reforms.
Robert Grow, transportation director for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, predicted more pollution from an Amtrak shutdown.
"Here we have a Code Red day when we're supposed to stay off the highways as much as we can. This would be working in exactly the opposite direction in terms of air quality," he said yesterday.
The business community also would suffer.
"It has impact throughout the economic system," Mr. Grow said.
Retail outlets at Union Station would be among the first to feel the pinch.
"That would be sad for this area and this station," said Steve Richardson, manager of the B. Dalton's bookstore there. "It would be a bummer."
In addition, layoffs could hit more than 3,000 workers employed by Amtrak and commuter rail agencies.
Amtrak's operations in the Washington area are a hub for rail connections throughout the Eastern Seaboard. Connecting trains travel the Northeast Corridor and go to Florida, Chicago, New Orleans and points in between.
"A lot of rural people come to Washington to transfer," Mr. Weyrich said. "It would have an impact far beyond the Washington metro area itself."
The effect would be felt most acutely in urban areas, where commuter rail agencies commonly share Amtrak's track, power systems, signals and dispatchers. They also contract with Amtrak employees to operate trains.
MARC and VRE are working out details of emergency plans to run commuter trains on CSX Transportation freight railroad tracks to Metro stations.
VRE would run trains to the L'Enfant Plaza station. MARC would run trains to the Silver Spring and New Carrollton stations. MARC also is considering running buses from Penn Station and Camden Yards in Baltimore to downtown Washington.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recommends that commuters check www.commuterconnections.org and the link to carpooling information. The service matches drivers willing to share their vehicles with riders who live in their vicinity.
Amtrak customers at Union Station yesterday were more concerned about their travel plans than Amtrak's loan guarantees.
"I take the train about once a month or more, and I'm very much concerned about all this talk of shutting down. I'd have to travel by bus, and that doesn't look like a good alternative. I just hope they keep it running," said Godfrey Hewitt of Southern Maryland.
Barbara Marizette of Takoma Park said, "My whole life I've been traveling on train. I don't travel by airplanes to anywhere that is a long distance away. I hope they do something because there are people like me who are continually traveling by Amtrak. It's my way of life."
Marguerite Higgins contributed to this report.

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