WASHINGTON — House Democrats gave a cool reception Thursday to a proposal to break up Amtrak, voicing concerns about routes in their states and the impact of free-market competition in passenger train service.
"Let's not 'Balkanize' Amtrak," Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) said at a hearing of the House Transportation subcommittee on railroads.
Oberstar and other lawmakers questioned a 1997 law that has put Amtrak on the brink of major change. The law required Amtrak to operate without government subsidies by December 2003--something the Amtrak Reform Council has said won't happen.
Amtrak lost $1.1 billion last year, the most in its history.
"We expect Amtrak to operate where the country needs it, yet any profit-oriented business would refuse to serve money-losing routes," said Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), chairman of the railroads subcommittee. He said the federal government has not spent enough on developing a national train network.
The hearing was held to discuss a report from the council, a government oversight panel that recommended dividing Amtrak into three pieces: one to make policy, one to oversee the tracks and stations Amtrak owns in the Boston-Washington Northeast corridor, and the third to conduct train operations.
The reform council said that, after a transition period of two to five years, private companies should be allowed to submit bids for franchises to run various routes.
Passenger rail is the exclusive domain of Amtrak, which Congress created in 1971 because freight railways were losing money carrying passengers.
Democrats on the panel said they support maintaining an Amtrak-controlled system and devoting more federal dollars to rail.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the Federal Highway Administration received $32 billion this year, compared with $521 million for Amtrak. "I don't hear anyone arguing the highway system is bankrupting the country," he said.