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Wilson Says His Top Goal in Budget Cuts Is to Derail Amtrak

January 09, 1986|LANIE JONES | Times Staff Writer

Sen. Pete Wilson's top priority will be to abolish Amtrak when Congress convenes Feb. 1 to consider budget cuts, the San Diego Republican said Wednesday in Huntington Beach.

"I'd wipe it out," Wilson said of the government-subsidized passenger railway system during a brief interview with The Times. His comments followed a taping on KOCE-Channel 50, Orange County's public television station, that covered a variety of issues.

Wilson said he doubted his colleagues in Congress would have "the spine" to eliminate federal subsidies for the railroad when it takes up budgets cuts as required by the new Gramm-Rudman legislation to end the federal deficit. 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 said.

'Difficult to Justify'

Of the San Diego to 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."

Wilson mentioned defense spending and establishing a Medicare system that would pay a greater portion 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.

"To arbitrarily cut the whole system would be a disaster," said Gary L. Hausdorfer, mayor pro tem of San Juan Capistrano, which is the midpoint of the San Diego-to-Los Angeles commuter run and which has built a bustling retail center around its old-fashioned train station.

80% Self-Supporting

Although many rail corridors are heavily subsidized, the San Diego to Los Angeles run was about 80% self-supporting, Hausdorfer 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," he 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."

'Golden Opportunity'

But San Diego's Acting Mayor Ed Struiksma said his community could benefit from abolishing Amtrak.

That move would provide San Diego and the area's 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 the development board 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 the Metropolitan Transit Development Board.

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 between about 500 communities in 43 states, but it cost the federal goverment $684 million to do so. Last November, a Senate-House conference committee rejected a Reagan Administration proposal to abolish Amtrak and instead reduced spending for Amtrak to $616 million in 1986.

Administration officials have argued that the government cannot afford to subsidize a rail system which largely benefits middle- and upper-income rail passengers and which could survive if states or private investors paid operating costs. Rail experts, however, claim the federal subsidies are necessary if passenger railroads are to exist. In the past, they say, railroads haven't been able to make a profit solely by hauling passengers.

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