Group Wants Amtrak Recommendations Back on Track

Published in National Journal Wire

The Amtrak Reform Council today urged Congress and the Bush administration to adopt a series of proposals it first made three years ago to try to stabilize the cash-strapped passenger rail service. The group of a dozen transportation, labor and finance experts from both the government and the private sectorsuggested making Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — the system’s largest and most profitable — a separate entity, transferring financial responsibility for operating losses of short-distance routes to states, establishing an adequate federal funding base for long-distance trains and introducing competition. The Bush administration endorsed some of the recommendations, but Congress has not expressed support for any of them, prompting the council to make another pitch.

“There is no doubt we need champions on the Hill,” said council member Bruce Chapman, head of the Discovery Institute and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. The group counts Reps. John Mica, R-Fla., and Rob Simmons, R-Conn., and outgoing Senate Commerce Chairman McCain as being strong advocates of Amtrak restructuring. McCain unsuccessfully pursued his own Amtrak measures this year. Paul Weyrich, former vice chairman of the council, said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Inhofe is also interested in the proposals but wants to focusfirst on wrapping up a surface transportation reauthorization law.

Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for Amtrak for FY05, less than the $1.8 billion Amtrak officials say is needed to repair and expand its dated and increasingly fragile infrastructure. Last month, Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead warned that Amtrak’s infrastructure problems had reached a “critical level.”