Amtrak is again facing a budget showdown this fall that could place the national passenger railroad in a severe financial squeeze, even as the Bush administration and key members of Congress square off over its long-term future.
While attention is being focused on a plethora of legislation to restructure Amtrak over the next six years, the more immediate crisis grows out of an unusually tight budget situation on Capitol Hill, compounded by the fact that the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees on transportation are highly critical of Amtrak, which has lost money throughout its 33-year existence.
Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) proposed granting Amtrak $12 billion in operating funds over six years and making available $48 billion in federally backed bonds.
(Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)
1 ET, Thursday: Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, discusses the President's plan for Amtrak.
In the end, the railroad may have to cut back spending meant to reverse deterioration of the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor, and Amtrak could be left with barely enough money to limp through the next fiscal year, if that, say key members of Congress and Amtrak officials.
Yesterday, four Senate Republicans -- Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), Trent Lott (Miss.), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) -- unveiled a plan to grant Amtrak $12 billion in operating funds over six years and make available $48 billion in federally backed bonds to pay for capital improvements. Their plan came out two days after the Bush administration, which wants to give Amtrak $900 million next year, released details of its previously announced plan to turn train service over to multi-state compacts and end operating subsidies while providing federal grants for capital improvements. Amtrak has sought $1.8 billion for next year.
All four senators, like many members of Congress with constituents outside of the Northeast, made it clear that they will not support any plan that leads to the elimination of long-distance trains.
"I am extremely disappointed with what the administration came up with," Lott said yesterday. "What they have proposed on Amtrak is a total non-starter. It will get the amount of consideration it deserves, which is nothing."
But Federal Railroad Administrator Allan Rutter said the administration is not willing to increase its $900 million budget recommendation until some serious steps are taken toward reform.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she expects another shutdown crisis similar to one last summer if the administration sticks to its $900 million recommendation. A threatened shutdown of Amtrak and commuter railroads that use its facilities and crews was narrowly averted last summer when Congress provided additional money.
"When it comes to Amtrak, the administration had better be careful what it asks for," Murray said.
But even Amtrak's closest friends in Congress said the upcoming fiscal year probably will be a bad one. "Given the [budget] allocation for transportation, I wouldn't want to bet the ranch on the $1.8 billion," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.). "I'm hearing just how tight it is."