The House yesterday rejected a proposal to make deep cuts in Amtrak's budget, a blow to administration efforts to force major changes at the beleaguered passenger rail system by withholding federal funds.
By voice vote, the House added $626 million to Amtrak's budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, boosting total subsidies to more than $1.17 billion. The funding is nearly comparable to this year's budget and is more than double the $550 million recently approved by the House Appropriations Committee, which sought to eliminate 18 routes, including all long-distance runs outside the Northeast Corridor.
The vote on an amendment by Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) is the latest in a long-running saga over Amtrak's fate. In one corner are reformers who want to foster passenger rail service, but not as a monolithic system. Standing in their way is a bipartisan group of lawmakers who fear that a decentralized approach would lead to a loss of service in less populated areas that already have limited transportation options.
The biggest champion of change is the Bush administration, which wants to shift from directly subsidizing Amtrak to providing grants for rail service to states, similar to the way the federal government underwrites aviation and highways. To push the changes along, Bush proposed no money for Amtrak in his fiscal 2006 budget request, compared with the $1.2 billion it is currently receiving.
The House was not prepared to go that far, though many Republicans in the committee supported the shock-therapy approach of reducing funding so dramatically that Amtrak would have to either change or face collapse. Yesterday, the House voted to restore the money cut by the Appropriations Committee.
Under a spending measure drafted in committee by Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), Amtrak would have been barred from using federal funds on routes that receive subsidies greater than $30 per passenger. That would have terminated 18 routes, including two of Amtrak's longest lines -- the Sunset Limited, which runs across the South from Los Angeles to Orlando, and the Empire Builder, which runs from Seattle and Portland to Chicago. The Sunset Limited is subsidized to the tune of $466 per passenger; the Empire Builder receives $172 per passenger.
"Congress will no longer sanction the use of taxpayer dollars on such extremely unpopular routes," Knollenberg said. "Amtrak needs to get back on track, and it does not need Congress to continue to throw money at its problems."
But Amtrak supporters countered that the reduction would have driven passenger rail service out of existence. "To slash Amtrak's operating budget and effectively strand millions of passengers is irresponsible," LaTourette said. Calling the House Appropriations proposal an "extremely blunt instrument," Rep. John W. Olver (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on Knollenberg's transportation subcommittee, warned that if the $550 million figure stood, "it should be no surprise there is no passenger rail service this time next year."
Olver also acknowledged a political reality that virtually guarantees that Amtrak funding would eventually be restored to this year's level -- if not by the House, then by the Senate, which is prepared to insist on a higher number. The Senate "is inclined to give [Amtrak] the money that it needs," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), an Amtrak advocate who is working on legislation to improve the service.
The routes that would have lost federal support under the original House spending bill traversed about two dozen states, "represented by a lot of members of the House," as Olver put it, and by about half of the Senate. Not included in that group are Amtrak's fiercest defenders, lawmakers representing the Northeast Corridor, unharmed under the House proposal.
The Bush administration has sought an Amtrak restructuring since 2003, when it first proposed a plan to shift some of the burden for passenger rail to states while encouraging the development of more profitable intercity lines, such as Northeast Corridor routes, including the line between Washington and New York; the Cascade service in the Pacific Northwest; and the line that connects Dallas and Oklahoma City.
Under the Bush plan, the federal government would take possession of the Northeast Corridor routes in the six-year transition period, during which it would improve the track infrastructure before turning the routes over to state control. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta calls the Bush plan "a lifeline to a dying railroad company." He notes that Amtrak has consumed $29 billion in federal funds over 34 years.
But Amtrak's president and chief executive, David L. Gunn, warned the House in April: "Do not be misled by those who quote huge per-passenger losses on certain routes." He cited the Sunset Limited. "Most would conclude that by simply cutting this train, you would save tens of millions of dollars," Gunn said. But he said the actual savings would be less than $15 million. Even cutting every long-distance train would result in no short-term savings because of locked-in costs, especially for labor, Gunn said.
The Bush administration was disappointed by the House vote. "Handing over more than a billion dollars with no reforms attached only gives Amtrak a blank check to continue misspending taxpayer money," Mineta said in a statement.