Amtrak Faces Budget Cuts After House Vote

The Associated Press
Friday, May 26, 2006; 6:23 AM

WASHINGTON -- The troubled Amtrak passenger railroad would see its federal subsidy cut to what one lawmaker termed "a shutdown number" under a bill advancing in the House. But that one-third cut is actually an improvement over a bill approved last year by the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, which would have slashed Amtrak's budget by more than half and shut down 18 routes. Amtrak's allies in the full House reversed those cuts on the floor.

The panel approved the latest measure, for the budget year starting Oct. 1, by voice vote.

The total matches President Bush's $900 million request for Amtrak, down from a budget of $1.3 billion this year. That figure is virtually certain to rise either on the House floor or after negotiations with the Senate, which won't begin work on a companion bill until after Congress' Memorial Day recess.

Amtrak runs trains through almost every state, which gives it great support among lawmakers despite criticism from the Bush administration and some lawmakers for excessive subsidies on its cross-country trains, high labor costs and questionable management practices.

Last year, Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy altogether, setting aside funds for the Northeast Corridor and for some capital improvements. But after its plan was rejected, the White House regrouped and proposed $900 million for the railroad this February.

"That is a shutdown number," said Rep. John Olver, D-Mass.

Panel Chairman Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., whose tough plans for Amtrak were rebuffed last year by other lawmakers, including many East Coast Republicans, acknowledged as much: "Obviously, we're going to have to find an increase in funding down the way."

Under Knollenberg's plan, Amtrak would have to reduce operating subsidies, which can top $400 per passenger on routes such as the fabled Sunset Limited from Florida to Los Angeles. To critics of the railroad, those money-losing routes make little sense, even though they have solid support in Congress.

The congressional action came on the same day a massive power outage on Amtrak's busiest corridor stranded tens of thousands of passengers, some in tunnels under the Hudson River. Power was out for nearly three hours, affecting not only the nation's federally subsidized passenger railroad but also commuter lines in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Bush's budget lambasted the railroad for "a lack of clarity about its purpose and mission," adding that "while other countries have turned to new models for providing passenger rail service, the American approach is unchanged."

Among the proposed changes, Amtrak would have to find savings from its money-losing first class and food and beverage services. Steep marketing discounts could not be offered in peak hours.

The underlying measure also funds housing, the Treasury Department, including the Internal Revenue Service, which would absorb a slight budget cut. For community development block grants, a favorite with lawmakers, the measure restores more than $1 billion in cuts proposed by the White House.

© 2006 The Associated Press