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Amtrak Scrutiny Will Continue

Transportation: Despite setbacks, panel to push ahead on system's future.

November 27, 1998| From Washington Post

WASHINGTON — As Americans by the millions pile into planes, trains and automobiles this Thanksgiving weekend, the panel charged with charting the future of the troubled Amtrak rail system decided this week to stay in business, despite the recent resignation of its chairwoman and strict limits placed by Congress on its operations.

At its second official meeting Tuesday, members of the Amtrak Reform Council lamented the resignation of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who quit in protest of Congress' refusal to allow the council to hire outside consultants to help it navigate the thicket of issues surrounding Amtrak's attempt to become fiscally viable.

But members also unanimously agreed to push forward in taking a broad look at Amtrak's operations and work steadily toward deciding whether the passenger railroad system can become profitable as it is now structured or, if not, devising a plan for a new system.

"I think what the Congress wants us to do is to figure out how to make this system sustainable. I'm not sure that depends on experts," said John O. Norquist, a council member and mayor of Milwaukee.

Eight of the 11 council members are appointed by Congress and two are appointed by the White House. The last seat is held by Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater.

Council members said they plan to draft a letter to Congress saying they have not had the time or resources to write several reports mandated by the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997.

Ultimately, the Reform Act requires that if the panel determines any time after Dec. 2, 1999, that Amtrak cannot be weaned off government subsidies, the council must submit plans for Amtrak's liquidation and the creation of a replacement.

Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris, sitting in for Slater, argued that many of the council members seemed to be operating under the assumption that Amtrak cannot be saved.

"A great deal of the conversation is what are we going to do when Amtrak fails," Molitoris said, adding that developments such as high-speed rail lines are promising areas of revenue growth that could help sustain Amtrak.

But Vice Chairman Paul Weyrich, president of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, responded: "I don't think there is anybody that isn't committed to having a successful rail passenger system for this country."

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