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The A Train The A Train page 2
Getting there in America: We want Amtrak

 Amtrak is afloat despite a continually fluctuating budget and without any long-term commitment from Washington. A national rail line, supporters argue, serves a vital role in transportation solutions.
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Date published: 3/26/2006


Bush's plan would have ended federal funding for Amtrak and forced cash-strapped states to pay the difference. Several routes still would have been eliminated.

Administration officials floated vague talk of a 50 percent federal funding match for state-financed projects. But the offer never actually materialized in any official proposal.

Not surprisingly, the president's plan was met with broad criticism from the public, elected officials, and rail experts--including Amtrak's then-CEO David Gunn, a Republican and Bush supporter.

In a series of pro-Amtrak votes, Congress settled on $1.3 billion for Amtrak, despite a White House veto threat.

But this annual funding struggle hinders Amtrak's ability to succeed. Imagine trying to run a household if you had no idea how much, or even if, you would be paid next month.

Critics point to Amtrak's problematic service record as a reason to end funding. But these lapses in service are due to lack of funding in the first place. The U.S. Department of Transportation has identified a chronic lack of adequate federal support as Amtrak's single biggest obstacle.

Reports have consistently shown that Amtrak needs $1.7 to $2 billion per year to stabilize service and increase quality.

Critics who call for Amtrak to make a profit are deceiving themselves. Efficiency can certainly be increased, but Amtrak is a transportation system, not a profit center.

Training better

It is true that numerous reforms that are in order. Sens. Trent Lott (R-MIss.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have written these reforms into a bill that would also provide Amtrak with reasonable, predictable funding. Such reforms would resolve issues with reliability, service quality, and infrastructure development.

Despite the support of industry, experts, labor, environmentalists, and businesses, the leadership in the Senate has thus far failed to allow an up or down vote on the bill.

Meanwhile, President Bush continues trying to kill Amtrak. In his 2007 budget, he claims to have restored funding by including $900 million for Amtrak. However, this is a 30 percent cut from last year. As far as Amtrak's CFO is concerned, $0 and $900 million yield the same result--bankruptcy.

Further, much of Bush's proposal turns out to be highly conditional. When broken down, $290 million of the proposed total is for mandatory payments on Amtrak's debt. Another $400 million is earmarked to "discretionary grants" for meeting unspecified conditions.

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COLIN F. PEPPARD is transportation policy coordinator for Friends of the Earth.