The board that governs Amtrak and signs contracts with suppliers, unions and states is shrinking to three members from seven.
Amtrak supporters fear that the smaller board will allow for fewer diverse opinions and less oversight. The incomplete board leaves the troubled passenger rail system in an awkward position, according to Michael S. Dukakis, who left the board in June 2003.
"To permit a situation to deteriorate to the point where you end up with the board consisting of the secretary of transportation's designee and one appointee of the administration is just irresponsible, in my opinion," Dukakis (D), a former Massachusetts governor, said last month.
The board vacancies and attempts to fill them now caught in partisan politics are the latest in a series of crises facing the railroad.
Amtrak has warned that inadequate funding is threatening bridge supports and service in the Northeast corridor and prompting other service cuts. And the National Railroad Passenger Corp. is preparing again for an uphill battle against an administration that has suggested Congress provide $900 million, half as much as the $1.8 billion the rail carrier requested, unless Amtrak agrees to a considerable shake-up.
The railroad said the administration's proposal would require it to shut down.
Such back and forth has become an annual rite, with calls for reform and change to make Amtrak live within its means.
Board member Sylvia de Leon's term expires at the end of this month. Her departure would have left the board with two members if not for President Bush's July 2 recess appointment of Floyd Hall of New Jersey. The appointment, which circumvents the Senate, will last through Dec. 31.
Even with a truncated board, Amtrak can make decisions and legally enter into contracts because the full board last year created an executive committee that can meet when the board lacks a quorum, the Transportation Department said. That has been the case every month since last year, with only three members on the board: de Leon, Chairman David M. Laney and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. Amtrak President David L. Gunn is a nonvoting member.
The severity of the board's condition is up for debate as three more of Bush's nominations await action by the Senate.
Frank N. Wilner, editor of a trade publication for the Association for Transportation Law, Logistics and Policy, said the committee that now meets was not the intention of the 1997 law that created the board.
"That's hardly an efficient way to run a corporation -- to dodge the mandate oath that you have a board of directors looking over the shoulder of management," he said.
Gunn, who took the reins in 2002 after the corporation's near-bankruptcy, has introduced a revised five-year plan that he hopes will grab Congress's attention. Gunn said the plan calls for federal subsidies averaging $1.6 billion for each of the next five years: $570 million a year for operating expenses and the balance for capital improvements.
But the administration is backing a provision included in the Senate transportation bill that would break Amtrak's operation of rail service and infrastructure maintenance into separate categories, and leave support of rail service up to the states. (Despite its support for the legislation, the White House has threatened to veto the transportation bill if the Amtrak proposal is not dealt with separately.)
Steven W. Kulm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said legislation might not be necessary if the board was complete with Bush-appointed members, who could independently restructure rail service.
"I wouldn't think the executive committee would feel proper to make major decisions," Kulm said. "You want the whole board to do that."
Gunn said he does not know how Congress will handle his five-year plan and funding requests. "I really think we're approaching the moment of truth for Amtrak because the physical conditions need to be addressed," he said.