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Wed Feb 27, 6:56 PM ET
By LAURENCE ARNOLD, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Leading figures in deciding the future of passenger rail service agreed Wednesday that Amtrak, after three decades of losing money, cannot keep running without major changes.
At a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, Amtrak President George Warrington presented his request for $1.2 billion in the fiscal year beginning in October — double the $521 million proposed by the Bush administration.
Warrington repeated his threat to eliminate 18 long-distance trains this fall if Amtrak does not receive its full request.
"Despite our best efforts and tangible signs of progress, the national passenger rail system has reached a critical crossroads," he said.
Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead agreed that Amtrak cannot maintain current operations with a federal appropriation of $521 million. He said Amtrak's request is reasonable, but he did not endorse it.
Mead said Congress must first resolve the larger issue of how to maintain the nation's rail network.
Amtrak says it has a $5.8 billion backlog in work for its trains, tracks, rail yards and stations.
"The magnitude of need makes it clear that neither the administration's request, nor Amtrak's request, would allow Amtrak to begin to meaningfully address these needs in 2003," Mead said.
Mead reported in January that Amtrak lost $1.1 billion in 2001, the most in its 30-year history, and had made no progress toward meeting Congress' 1997 order that it wean itself from annual operating subsidies from the government.
To cut costs, Amtrak is eliminating 1,000 of the company's 24,600 jobs and making other cuts in training, advertising and equipment maintenance.
Congress is due to vote this year on whether to authorize Amtrak's continued existence as the nation's sole provider of intercity train service.
The Amtrak Reform Council, created by Congress in 1997, released a plan this month calling for breaking up Amtrak and franchising out its routes to introduce competition into passenger rail.
The council's chairman, Gilbert Carmichael, told the subcommittee that the key issue with Amtrak is its structure, not any shortage of federal support.
"Effective restructuring will beget funding," he said. "Additional funding will not bring about reform."
But Mead sided with Amtrak on the issue, noting that any new passenger train operators would face the same problems caused by lack of capital spending.
"Don't be fooled into thinking that (restructuring) is going to solve the problem," he said.
Warrington acknowledged Amtrak chose not to cut unprofitable long-distance routes even after Congress gave it the authority to do so in 1997. He said those routes are crucial if Amtrak is to retain support from lawmakers.
"We are a creature of the political process," he said. "Congress has made very clear there is an expectation we will run a national system."
The administration has characterized its proposed spending for Amtrak as a "place-setter," pending decisions about the railway's future.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Harold Rogers (news), said he hopes the administration takes a more active role. "It seems no one wants to tackle this subject," said Rogers, R-Ky.
Allan Rutter, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the administration is "neck deep" in evaluating Amtrak and passenger rail.
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