- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

From combined dispatches

A House panel decided yesterday to give Amtrak less than one-third of the money the passenger railway requested to operate next year.

The House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Transportation and Treasury departments approved an Amtrak budget of $580 million for fiscal 2004, which starts Oct. 1. That compares with $900 million requested by the Bush administration and $1.8 billion that Amtrak says is necessary to maintain existing services.

While only an initial step in a budgetary process that won’t be finished for months, the subcommittee action signaled more trouble for the perennially money-losing Amtrak, which last summer narrowly averted its first nationwide shutdown.

“As a practical matter, this is a shutdown scenario,” Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said of the $580 million amount.

He said Amtrak spends $466 million annually just to maintain its existing capital equipment in the Northeast Corridor, and the passenger railroad could not function with the amount allotted by the subcommittee.

Any shutdown with such a small budget would leave no money to maintain even partial service, such as in the Washington and New York areas, Mr. Black said. Instead, it would require a nationwide shutdown.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican, said Amtrak “needs to show it can operate successfully on a smaller scale where it does have density and it does have demand.”

Mr. Istook referred to an effort in Congress to make Amtrak concentrate its service along key corridors, overseen by the states. The Northeast Corridor is one of them, another would operate between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and a third would use Chicago as a hub for rail service to major Midwestern cities.

However, the states have said they lack the money to take over any new funding responsibilities likely to come with control of Amtrak’s corridors.

“Having been in office just 18 months, having to trim the state budget by $6 billion and having to fix a broken state transportation agency, Virginia doesn’t have a lot of money for new initiatives, such as increased funding for passenger rail,” said Kevin Hall, spokesman for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.

Shareese DeLeaver, spokeswoman for Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said, “Maryland has enough transportation issues as it is.”

She also expressed concern that Amtrak’s continuing budget problems would hurt Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) service. The state’s commuter rail agency shares track and operations staff with Amtrak.

“I imagine the shutdown of Amtrak would be devastating to commuters who rely on it,” Miss DeLeaver said.

Amtrak, formed in 1971, serves 500 communities in 46 states on its 22,000 miles of track. Congress, long critical of the railway’s dependence on government subsidies, in 1997 gave Amtrak five years to wean itself from federal support, but the railway continues to rack up operating losses of a $1 billion a year.

Staff writer Tom Ramstack contributed to this report.

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