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Amtrak Shutdown Possible

The U.S. Senate has taken a first step toward shutting down Amtrak, the nation's 22,000-mile intercity passenger-rail system that serves 500 destinations in 46 states.
 
Senators had no problem earlier in the week approving $80 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they decided the government can't afford a mere $1 billion to keep Amtrak running. 
 
Voting to terminate funding for Amtrak (except for $360 million that is supposed to, but may not, keep the Northeast Corridor running) was Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. Only three weeks ago, the state's junior senator had vowed to fight the Bush administration's efforts to kill Amtrak.
 
The administration wants states to bear the cost of running the trains. But that seems likely to put an end to anything resembling a national passenger system.
 
And that would be a huge mistake.
 
With intelligence information indicating that al-Qaida continues to look at commercial airliners as instruments of terror, maintaining a decent level of passenger-rail service should -- if nothing else -- be a homeland security priority. Amtrak is a backup should the worse occur, an alternative means of transportation that 25 million people used last year.
 
Should it come, the end of Amtrak won't be pretty. In a worse-case scenario it could be forced into bankruptcy and required to sell its assets. As The Wall Street Journal reported this week, that could have serious consequences for commuter trains around the country that operate on Amtrak rails, use Amtrak crews or pull into Amtrak stations.
 
In Pennsylvania alone, 3,000 Amtrak employees would lose their jobs. If the entire system went down, we would see increased congestion in the Northeast. And the worst could happen because one is hard put to see any semblance of a transition plan that would provide a smooth shift of passenger-rail responsibilities to the states. Congress and the Bush administration are, in effect, courting chaos.
 
Santorum and his colleagues need to reconsider the magnitude of what they are doing. Killing off Amtrak would be the height of shortsightedness, a penny-wise, pound-foolish decision they would come to regret.
 
Editorial, The Patriot News, Mar 18, 2005

Santorum votes against restoring funds to Amtrak;  Specter, other NE lawmakers support it
 
Effort to increase Amtrak's funding fails to pass Senate
 
An effort in the Senate to increase federal subsidies for the Amtrak system failed Wednesday.

The amendment, offered by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., would have added $1.04 billion to government financial assistance for the system. It failed on a 52-46 vote.
The amendment was co-sponsored by 23 senators, mostly Democrats. Two Republicans from the Northeast:  Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island also voted for it.
 
In his 2006 budget, President Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy and setting aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad ceased operating. In the budget year that ends Sept. 30, Amtrak receives $1.2 billion in operating subsidies and capital investment.
 
Byrd's amendment to the Senate fiscal year 2006 budget resolution would have brought Amtrak's funding to $1.4 billion, when added to the $360 million.
 
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the amendment's failure showed that the Senate is "ready to begin an earnest discussion on the best way to undertake desperately needed reforms to put intercity passenger rail on a stable footing for the future."
 
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black declined to comment.

 
Senate group pushes to restore more than $1 billion in Amtrak cuts
 
The move seeks to fend off administration plans to dismantle much of a system it calls wasteful.
 
In a bid to head off a White House plan to dismantle and privatize much of Amtrak, Senate Democrats yesterday pushed for legislation to restore more than $1 billion President Bush has proposed cutting from its budget.
 
Supporters of the measure said the White House plan would strand both urban commuters and residents of far-flung rural regions. Mostly Democrats, the backers included Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island also signed on as cosponsors.
 
"The intent of the administration and some in Congress is not to improve inter-city rail service," said Corzine. "It is not about promoting economic growth, reducing road congestion, or promoting American commerce either. It is ideological and it is wrong."
 
Bush proposed in February that Amtrak's federal funding be eliminated and the rail line be placed in bankruptcy as a prelude to restructuring. While the White House had proposed sharp funding cuts in the past, it had never before suggested bankruptcy.
 
That tactic appears to have galvanized Amtrak supporters, who say it would disrupt service for inter-city rail passengers and local mass-transit trains that run on Amtrak lines.
 
"The idea of putting Amtrak into bankruptcy to reform it just doesn't make sense," Corzine said.
 
The White House has released few details of its proposal. Based on comments by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, it appears to be modeled on a 2003 plan - which died from lack of support - under which the federal government would have ended Amtrak operating subsidies in favor of grants to the states to upgrade tracks, bridges, and other rail infrastructure.
 
States would have had the option of joining with one another to provide long-distance service, and of contracting with private companies to run the trains. But they would have had to shoulder some operating costs - the thinking being that well-patronized long-distance lines would survive while state governments would abandon little-used, marginal ones.
 
The current amendment, introduced by Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.), would provide $1.4 billion for Amtrak in the next fiscal year. Byrd said the government could raise the money by closing corporate tax loopholes.
 
A spokeswoman said late yesterday that Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) had not yet taken a position on the Byrd amendment.
 
Earlier in the day, Corzine joined Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Carper, Max Baucus of Montana - all Democrats - and Chafee at a rally at Washington's Union Station to oppose the cuts...
 
The rail line provides thousands of jobs and in some Western states is the only feasible mode of transportation for the elderly and the young. It is also popular in the Northeast, where trains between Washington and Boston often are packed.
 
That translates into political support from a diverse Capitol Hill coalition that includes Republicans from Western states and Democrats in the Northeast. And that coalition so far has been successful in blocking the administration from cutting Amtrak service.
 
The Senate was expected to vote on Byrd's amendment today.
 
By Chris Mondics, Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar 16, 2005

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