- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Amtrak President David Gunn said yesterday that Bush administration proposals for funding the railroad would force it to shut down sometime in the next fiscal year.

Amtrak sent Congress a $1.798 billion funding request yesterday that is nearly twice as much as the Bush administration proposed for fiscal 2005.

The $900 million Bush administration proposal would force the railroad to skip routine maintenance essential to continued operations, Mr. Gunn said.

“It gets pretty risky to talk about not doing that work,” he said.

He mentioned track maintenance on the Northeast corridor as an example.

He also questioned whether the budget would be adequate to pay Amtrak’s nearly 20,000 employees, who receive about half of Amtrak’s annual spending in wages.

Amtrak and its unions have struggled for years with conservative members of Congress, who say the railroad should be privatized because it wastes money, such as payroll for its unionized workers.

However, some critics of the railroad in Congress are reluctant to cut funding because it could eliminate Amtrak service in their home districts.

Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, said the Bush administration’s proposed budget would continue a “30-year starvation of Amtrak.”

He also said it “plays politics with the future of Amtrak and its 20,000 workers.”

This year, Congress gave Amtrak $1.2 billion. Railroad officials had asked for $1.7 billion.

The Bush administration is trying to force Congress to restructure Amtrak with greater privatization, more state control and more focus on regional high-speed trains instead of a national rail system.

However, President Bush’s plan faces stiff opposition in Congress, even among some fellow Republicans. Instead, Democrats and some Republicans support a $42 billion six-year plan to increase subsidies for passenger and freight rail.

The president’s budget would increase Amtrak funding to $1.4 billion in subsequent years only if the railroad is restructured.

Transportation Department officials said Amtrak’s warning that it would be compelled to shut down under the president’s budget shows the need to reform the railroad.

“I think this is another example of the yearly threat by Amtrak to passengers that it would shut down service if it was not provided with fundings that were far and away above what the administration and Congress are proposing,” said Leonardo Alcivar, Transportation Department spokesman.

Mr. Gunn said the Bush administration plan closely follows similar rail-privatization efforts in England, which have led to large cost overruns.

“If they want to restructure the company, we should learn from Britain,” Mr. Gunn said. “They opened Pandora’s box.”

He agreed that regional high-speed corridors are a good idea for carrying more passengers, but said Amtrak can develop them now by upgrading existing railways instead of turning them over to states and private companies.

“We’re talking about incremental improvement with existing technology,” said Mr. Gunn, who took over as Amtrak president on May 15, 2002.

Part of Amtrak’s funding request includes money to upgrade tracks between Philadelphia and Harrisburg in Pennsylvania, called the Keystone Corridor. The track upgrade would allow trains to run up to 120 mph instead of the current 90 mph, he said.

“This doesn’t require anything more than going out and fixing the track,” he said.

Amtrak officials admit their budget requests often are higher than the actual amount they receive, but say their needs are great.

“We are looking to address years of deferred maintenance and capital programs,” said Dan Stessel, Amtrak spokesman. “Congress felt they could wean Amtrak off federal subsidies with the hope of turning Amtrak into a profitable company, which we have since described as a fantasy.”

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