- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Key senators involved in transportation issues pressured the Bush administration yesterday to come up with a proposal for rescuing Amtrak from financial collapse.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee expressed concern that the work they do on two of their own competing proposals will be wasted unless they get guidance soon from the president.
"The worst of all worlds for us is to go through the whole legislative process and [have] a bill that the president threatens to veto," said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
Mr. McCain proposed a bill that would split Amtrak into three entities and concentrate federal spending into developing high-speed corridors between major cities. The three entities would manage infrastructure, administrative policy and operations, while seeking to auction operation of the routes to private companies.
It closely follows recommendations in January from the Amtrak Reform Council, the congressionally appointed board that oversees the railroad's finances.
Mr. McCain questioned the wisdom of large federal subsidies when studies showed only 1 percent of Americans ride Amtrak and even fewer use it for long-distance trips.
At a House hearing last week, Federal Railroad Administration head Allen Rutter said the Bush administration would try to complete work on an Amtrak rescue plan in time for a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing scheduled for April 11.
"Why haven't you all sent up something we can act on," asked Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat.
Mr. Hollings proposed a separate bill that would keep Amtrak in roughly the same form as now but increase the federal subsidy to $4.6 billion a year.
Early indications from the Bush administration show a preference for high-speed corridors between cities, similar to Mr. McCain's proposal. States where the rails run would share management and costs with the federal government.
"I think cost sharing is probably the way to go," Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said yesterday.
Meanwhile, Amtrak has announced the 18 long-distance routes that would be eliminated in October unless its federal subsidy is more than doubled.
Three of them run through Washington.
Amtrak President George Warrington, who announced his resignation last week, has warned the railroad needs an increase in its subsidy from the current $521 million to at least $1.2 billion a year.
Even $1.2 billion would not improve the infrastructure or pay off debts, he said.
"The debate is much less about Amtrak than it is about what this country's public policy should be with respect to rail," Mr. Warrington said yesterday.
In its 31 years of operation, Amtrak never earned a profit despite repeated pledges by its leaders that only a little more federal spending was needed to become self-supporting.
After the Senate hearing yesterday, a congressman critical of Amtrak added his support for development of high-speed passenger railroad corridors.
Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at a press conference that he supports a $71 billion Republican proposal to build a new rail system between major cities dedicated to passenger trains operating over 125 mph.
Mr. Mica has criticized an extensive nationwide system that includes routes with few riders and high operating costs.
He said high-speed corridors would have more riders and pay most of their costs through ticket sales.
An example is the Northeast Corridor, which is Amtrak's only profitable route. It carries more riders between Washington, New York and Boston than the airlines.
Among the 18 unprofitable routes Amtrak said would be eliminated without more funding are the Cardinal, which runs between Washington, Cincinnati and Chicago; the Capitol Limited, operating between Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago; and the Twilight Shoreliner, running between Boston, Washington, and Newport News, Va.
"I think everyone sees that development of high-speed corridors is absolutely essential," Mr. Mica said.


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