- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

The Bush administration announced details yesterday of its long-awaited plan to eliminate Amtrak’s unprofitable long-distance routes and force states to pay more of the costs of intercity trains.

The plan would require states and the District of Columbia to form interstate compacts if they want to continue passenger-rail service.

The Northeast corridor, for example, would require a joint operating agreement among the District, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts and other states along the Washington-Boston route.

After a six-year phase-in, the federal government would pay no more than half the costs in matching grants. States would have to pay the rest from local taxes or ticket revenue.

“The states, if they value that route, can subsidize it and operate it,” a senior Transportation Department official said at a press briefing yesterday.

The plan is intended to solve Amtrak’s persistent financial problems. The national passenger railroad is operating with annual deficits of about $1 billion.

This year Amtrak says it needs $1.8 billion to continue operating for another fiscal year. The Bush administration is offering $900 million.

Amtrak President David L. Gunn took no position on the Bush administration’ proposal other than to say much larger investments are needed in infrastructure.

“The gravity of this immediate need to maintain Amtrak’s operational reliability vastly overshadows any debate over the plan introduced today,” he said in a statement.

Critics of the plan say it puts an unfair burden on states to pay for passenger rail.

“Given their fiscal troubles, they certainly won’t be able to handle it,” said Andy Davis, spokesman for Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat.

Mr. Hollings, ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has said passenger rail between cities is a federal responsibility. He has sponsored legislation to increase Amtrak’s subsidies to $5 billion a year for the next five years.

“The administration’s proposal is wildly unrealistic,” Mr. Davis said. He predicted a tough fight to win congressional approval.

Supporters of the plan say it could improve service and encourage private investors to build railroads.

“I met with people from Wall Street, and they’re willing to finance the infrastructure if Amtrak is out of the picture,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican. “It would be a financial success and a transportation breakthrough.”

The interstate compacts envisioned in the plan would have independent authority to run their passenger-rail systems, similar to Metro’s operator and other urban transit agencies. They could choose to hire Amtrak or other railroad operators to run their trains.

The federal government also hopes to spur development of high-speed passenger-rail service along key corridors.

States would have the option of using their federal matching funds on high-speed rail infrastructure.

Any new high-speed rail systems would probably require a large investment in new track dedicated to passenger rail. Most of the nation’s passenger-rail systems now share track with freight railroads.

“You’re talking about a real problem if you have freight trains operating 30 miles an hour on track with passenger trains going 120 miles per hour,” said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the trade group for major railroads.

Amtrak serves 500 communities in 46 states on 22,000 miles of track.

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