- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

Amtrak’s recent performance will help it make a strong argument for continued funding when Congress returns from its August recess to consider restructuring the national passenger railroad.

In each of the past three months, Amtrak has set 32-year records for the number of riders it carried.

“Slowly but surely, we are making improvements, and we are beginning to see results,” Amtrak President David L. Gunn said in a statement. “With public support to bring our infrastructure, trains and stations to a state of good repair, Amtrak will continue to build on this success.”

The railroad credited the improvements to marketing, schedule changes and better economic conditions in some regions.

The Pennsylvanian, for example, a train that runs between New York and Pittsburgh, increased ridership by 98 percent after discarding its mail-carrying and freight business. Now the train operates on a faster schedule, carrying only passengers.

Amtrak improved Los Angeles-to-San Diego ridership 32 percent in the past year by agreeing with Metrolink, the Southern California commuter-rail agency, to honor each other’s passenger tickets.

Nevertheless, President Bush is urging Congress to permanently restructure Amtrak under proposals scheduled for action in the first or second week of September.

The Bush administration wants to turn over more control and financing responsibility to the states. The federal government would help fund infrastructure, but the states would pay operating expenses. They also would oversee management of regional rail operations through interstate compacts.

Another proposal in the Senate would maintain Amtrak as a federally operated system.

Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Trent Lott of Mississippi introduced a bill to give Amtrak $12 billion in operating funds over six years and $48 billion in federally backed bonds to pay for capital improvements.

Some congressional critics have questioned the quality of Amtrak’s management, including Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican. Both are members of committees that oversee Amtrak’s management

As Congress prepares to debate restructuring proposals, Amtrak has been regularly updating members of Congress on its finances, operations and needs.

“We’re constantly going to meetings on Capitol Hill,” Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel said. “Mr. Gunn has meetings with various members of Congress every couple of weeks.”

Since Mr. Gunn took over leadership of Amtrak, he has trimmed its middle management and ceased business operations unrelated to the railroad’s core mission of carrying passengers. Express freight, for example, brought in marginal profits, but interfered with passenger schedules.

In addition, liberal use of discounted tickets has drawn in new riders.

Mr. Gunn has said Amtrak needs at least $1.8 billion to continue operating for another fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The Bush administration is offering $900 million, a proposal that Mr. Gunn calls “a nonstarter.”

“The issue here is one of underfunding, not mismanagement,” Mr. Stessel said. “Ridership reflects that there have been improvements to the quality of our service.”

Amtrak carried 2.2 million passengers in July, the best month for ridership since the passenger railroad was founded in 1971. It carried more than 2.1 million passengers in both May and June.

Fifteen Amtrak routes posted double-digit ridership gains last month compared with July 2002.

Amtrak warns that the progress can continue only with adequate funding.

Unless Congress develops a better funding source to maintain the railroad’s tracks, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure, “something is going to give,” Mr. Stessel said.

So far, Congress has provided enough money to keep trains running, but not enough to prevent the infrastructure from deteriorating, he said.

Amtrak carries about 23 million passengers a year in 46 states over 22,000 miles of tracks.

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