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Amtrak Funding in Flux

Congress: As funding measures stall, the rail carrier's future has become more clouded.

October 05, 2002|RANDY TRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As appropriation bills stall on Capitol Hill, the future of Amtrak and long-distance passenger service has become even less certain.

Three funding amounts have floated through Congress, ranging from the $1.2 billion the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved to the $521 million the Bush administration proposed last summer. In the middle is the House appropriation bill, offering the rail service $762 million for the next fiscal year.

As the full House sets to debate the funding level, such groups as the United States Conference of Mayors have been weighing in.

On Friday, the organization of civic leaders called on the House to meet the Senate committee's funding level of $1.2 billion, saying continued investment in Amtrak is critical to urban development, the economy and coping with ever increasing transportation demands.

"America needs a balanced transportation system, and Amtrak is a piece of that system," Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr said. Not funding Amtrak at the Senate committee's level would "plunge Amtrak into the type of funding crisis Congress and the administration narrowly avoided in July."

Barr was referring to the crisis last summer when the government approved $270 million in loans to keep the trains running for the rest of the fiscal year, subject to conditions that included an accounting of assets and finances and monthly financial reports.

Amtrak President David Gunn has told Congress he needs a minimum of $1.2 billion to upgrade track and equipment, repair deteriorating tunnels in the Northeast and operate current routes.

Critics have taken shots at Amtrak's long-distance routes, the portion of the service that is the least financially independent. As a result, the Republican-drafted House legislation earmarks only $150 million to continue long-distance intercity runs. That could force Amtrak to cut 13 of its 18 long-distance runs, said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), speaking at Friday's news conference with the mayors.

Oberstar, ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said if the House funding level passes, "not only will we not have a commuter rail system, but our rail will be the equivalent of a Third World country's."

A number of long-distance routes run through Los Angeles, from cities including Seattle, Chicago and Orlando, Fla. If Amtrak cuts the least profitable of the long hauls, most in the Midwest, it means fewer passengers coming into California from the East.

The West Coast and California routes may remain untouched because of high ridership levels and because a majority of the funding comes from the state, Oberstar said.

California has formed a partnership with Amtrak that is unique. Amtrak California uses state money to subsidize the large Amtrak lines that feed into major cities such as Los Angeles and Sacramento, and the smaller lines linking smaller cities.

Federal officials "like us as a model," said Dennis Trujillo, Caltrans' deputy director of external affairs. Trujillo lamented any federal funding cutback to Amtrak and said funding below what Amtrak needs is likely to result in reduced services in California, despite state support.

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