Bush's Amtrak Plan Stirs Concern In States

 

States are worried about a provision in the Bush administration's proposal to overhaul Amtrak, fearing it would force them to shoulder much of the cost of long-distance passenger train service in the future.

State transportation officials generally agree that the nation's 30-year-old passenger rail system needs change, but some differ with the administration on how to finance it.

Amtrak, a quasi-public entity much like the U.S. Postal Service, is plagued by financial woes. The administration's plan would split Amtrak into three parts one of which would contract with states and multi-state compacts to provide passenger service.

Under the plan, the federal government would provide a 50-50 match for funds spent on capital investment such as building roadbed, but would not fund operational costs of train service.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the chief Senate sponsor of the plan, which is called the Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act of 2003. The proposal is currently pending in the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs, but no hearing date has been set.

The plan says "states, not Amtrak, are best equipped to decide where rail service is important."

"To ... ask the states to take over responsibility is very problematic from our perspective. To place the burden for operating losses on the states is tantamount to killing rail service in this country. States aren't in a position to be able to take on any additional fiscal responsibilities," Eileen Doherty of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) told Stateline.org. States currently collectively spend $345 million per year on passenger train service, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. It's unclear how much more states would pay under the administration plan.

Amtrak serves 46 states. Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming are the only exceptions. Thirteen states California, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin already pick up the operating costs of some intra-state passenger rail service.

Missouri, for example, spends about $5 million a year to subsidize passenger service between St. Louis and Kansas City, but pays nothing for national lines the Southwest Chief and the Texas Eagle -- that pass through the state, Brian Weiler, an official with the Missouri Department of Transportation, said. But this year, Missouri cut staff at stations on its state-funded line and imposed a $5 surcharge on all tickets to help offset costs.

"With our current budget situation, like many other states, we're frankly concerned about any proposal that transfers more costs to the states. We're having a difficult time as it is," Weiler told Stateline.org.

"(The administration is) taking states at their most vulnerable time ... and telling us, Well, if you're going to have this program, you're going to have to pay for it largely.' And that's just not what states need," Missouri state Sen. Joan Brey (D) said.

A federal transportation official who declined to be identified said states have no real reason for concern. The administration proposal is a long-term plan and involves "a significant transition period," the official said.

"It would be a methodical and incremental process to transition to a more sustainable, long-term model for providing intercity rail," the official added.

As part of the plan, the administration envisions multi-state compacts to help pay for the operational costs of the long-distance trains that cut across several states, such as the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Spokane, Wash., or Portland, Ore.

But NCSL's Doherty said that making several states responsible for funding a long-distance line could be a recipe for disaster.

"If you have one state that has the money and the political will to support the line and keep it running, and you have a neighboring state where the line travels through that doesn't have that ability to support it or has other priorities, then that causes a major problem," Doherty said. Washington state spends $12 million on rail services annually and together with Oregon operates lines between Portland and Seattle. The administration cites this as an example of a working multi-state compact.

However, some Washington officials are leery of the Bush plan.

"It does appear that (supporting) the national system would be forced upon the states by the plan. Washington is not in a position where we could financially support the long distance trains at this time," said Ken Uznanski, manager of the Washington Department of Transportation's rail office.

As the administration's long-term proposal for Amtrak is debated, the U.S. Congress is considering annual funding of the system. The rail service says it needs $1.8 billion to maintain current services. Last year it received $1.2 billion, the National Conference of State Legislature's Doherty said.

 
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