WASHINGTON — Budget director David A. Stockman today set up the battle over the Administration's attempt to cut funds for Amtrak as the "litmus indicator" of Congress' budget-cutting resolve.
"There are few programs that I can think of that rank lower than Amtrak in terms of the good they do, the purpose they serve, the national need that they respond to," Stockman said. "That's how it all breaks down. . . . Amtrak is the litmus indicator."
He said, "If we don't have the courage, if we don't have the foresight, if we don't have the comprehension of our problems sufficiently enough to get rid of Amtrak, I don't think we are going to save much off the budget at all and we're going to face either enormous deficits down the road or whopping tax increases."
Stockman told a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that the nearly $700 million the federal government spends annually on Amtrak subsidies cannot be justified when annual budget deficits are topping $200 billion.
Cutting Amtrak subsidies, which both advocates and opponents believe would mean an end to the passenger railroad, is one of the most controversial parts of the Reagan Administration budget that attempts to chop $52 billion off the deficit in fiscal 1986, mostly by cuts in federal spending.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), a supporter of the Amtrak system and one of the crucial votes Senate Republican leader Bob Dole needs for passage of the Reagan budget, argued that other forms of transportation, such as automobiles and airplanes, also are subsidized.
"The subsidy argument fails. The question now is mobility," Weicker said.
Arguing against the subsidy, Stockman said 55% of Amtrak riders have incomes above $20,000.
But Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) used the same figures to say that "almost half of the non-Northeast Corridor passengers earn a family income of less than $20,000 and more than one-third of all non-Northeast passengers are over 55 years of age."