HUNTINGTON BEACH — When Congress convenes Feb. 1 to consider budget cuts, as required by the new Gramm-Rudman bill to end the federal deficit, Sen. Pete Wilson's top priority will be to abolish Amtrak, he said Wednesday.
"I'd wipe it out," Wilson (R-Calif.) said of the government-subsidized passenger railway system during a brief interview with The Times. His comments followed a taping on KOCE-TV (Channel 50), Orange County's public television station, on a variety of issues.
Wilson said he doubted that his colleagues in Congress would have "the spine" to eliminate federal subsidies for the railroad. But, he said, "Amtrak is a system in which a quarter of the stops board less than five passengers a day. It is very difficult not to declare that a luxury."
Even Amtrak's most heavily traveled corridors--between San Diego and Los Angeles and between Boston and Washington--are not cost-effective, Wilson said. And on all routes, the government has to pay an average $35 subsidy per person per ride, he claimed.
Of the San Diego-Los Angeles corridor, the former San Diego mayor said, "While I would like to see it (continue), it is difficult to justify that as a priority in competition with things that are more needed."
"The total load on the Northeast Corridor is far less than the number of people who are transported by a couple of the major airports in one day," he said.
Wilson mentioned defense spending and establishing a Medicare system that would pay a greater share of hospital costs as more desirable ways to spend federal money.
Wilson's comments on the railroad system drew widely differing responses from political leaders around the Southland.
San Diego's acting mayor, Ed Struiksma, said the community could benefit from abolishing Amtrak. That move would provide San Diego and its Metropolitan Transit Development Board--a transportation consortium of 11 cities in southern and eastern San Diego County--"a golden opportunity to acquire the (Amtrak) right of way virtually for nothing," Struiksma said.
If MTDB could gain rights to the line, it could extend its successful trolley line north from downtown San Diego to Oceanside and perhaps eventually operate rail service to Los Angeles, Struiksma said.
Given "the continual choking of Interstate 5 along the coast, the question is how to move people along," he said. "I think we're going to have commuter rail travel between San Diego and Los Angeles. The question is who's going to provide that service and who's going to own this line." If not Amtrak, Struiksma, said, perhaps MTDB.
But Gary L. Hausdorfer, mayor pro tem of San Juan Capistrano, a small Orange County community which is the midpoint of the San Diego-Los Angeles commuter run and which has built a bustling retail center around its old-fashioned train station, condemned Wilson's proposal.
"To arbitrarily cut the whole system would be a disaster," Hausdorfer said. Although many rail corridors are heavily subsidized, the San Diego-Los Angeles run is about 80% self-supporting, he said. "It is the only rail system in Southern California, if not all of California, that comes close to making a profit, and proving that the existing rail system can be used to diminish the kinds of congestion we have on the freeway today," Hausdorfer said.
"If you want people in Southern California to get out of their cars and stop building freeways, cutting train transportation is not the way to do it," he added.
In Los Angeles, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said he was reluctant to comment on Wilson's remarks without hearing a more detailed explanation. But he said the Gramm-Rudman bill, which requires Congress to make yearly spending cuts or submit to automatic cuts to eliminate a $180-billion deficit by 1991, "is forcing these kinds of wiping out of programs, slashing out programs. It's going to end up adversely affecting people at the local level, whether it's hot meals for seniors or transportation programs that are on the block."
Wilson's comments Wednesday continue a debate about Amtrak that has been raging since the passenger line, a private corporation created by Congress, began operating in 1971.
In 1985, the system carried 20 million passengers, serving 500 communities in 43 states, costing the federal government $684 million. In November, a Senate-House conference committee rejected a Reagan Administration proposal to abolish Amtrak, and instead reduced spending for it to $616 million in 1986.