• Amtrak advocates rail against extensive subsidy cuts for 2006
     | March 06,2005

    WASHINGTON The federal government spends billions of dollars every year on airports, canals, harbors and interstate highways. Yet when it comes to Amtrak passenger rail service, there is an annual struggle over how much taxpayers should have to spend to keep the trains running.

    Amtrak is caught nearly every year between those who want to do away with passenger rail and those who complain that it's chronically underfunded.

    In its budget for next year, the Bush administration proposes spending only $360 million for passenger rail service to maintain tracks used by commuter rail services in the Northeast and other urban areas. Amtrak says it needs $1.8 billion to continue operating in the 2006 fiscal year that starts this Oct. 1.

    The White House budget is much more generous with other kinds of transportation, calling for:

  • $34.7 billion in highway construction and maintenance funds.

  • $13.8 billion for he Federal Aviation Administration, which provides the nation's air traffic control system that guides commercial airliners.

  • $3 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers for the expansion and maintenance of ports, harbors and inland waterways a benefit to operators of barges and ships that transport coal, petroleum, chemicals, and industrial metals and countless consumer goods.

    "Rail has always been the ugly stepchild of transportation options," says Jason Jordan, government affairs director of the American Planning Association, an organization that promotes mass transportation.

    Amtrak was created in 1971 with $50 million in federal money and was intended to be a self-supporting network within four years. It never achieved that goal, and since then, the government has spent $29 billion to subsidize a system that serves fewer than 1 percent of Americans. Several states pump in millions more each year to support regional rail services.

    Every president since Ronald Reagan has sought to either cut off money for rail passenger service or force Amtrak to function on its own. This year, Amtrak's operating budget is $3 billion, one-third of it in federal subsidies.

    Denying these subsidies for Amtrak "would likely lead to the elimination of inefficient operations and the reorganization of the railroad through bankruptcy procedures," says the U.S. Department of Transportation's proposed budget for 2006. "Ultimately a more rational passenger rail system would emerge."

    According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a Washington-based lobbying organization, federal funding for highways and aviation more than doubled in the past 20 years, while funding for passenger rail service fell 27 percent.

    The federal government rushed a $15 billion bailout to the passenger airlines to compensate for the loss of business when all commercial aviation was grounded in the week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

    "Nobody blinks at giving them however many billions of dollars to save that system," says Anne P. Canby, director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), an independent transportation policy organization. Canby, a former Delaware transportation secretary, says there is a "national interest" in supporting many different types of transportation.

    Scott Bernstein, director of Reconnecting America, a transportation policy organization in Oakland, Calif., says money given to Amtrak which has averaged over $1 billion per year over the last few years is a "pittance" compared to the amount of federal money pumped into other transportation modes.

    Groups like STPP and Reconnecting America are urging policymakers to loosen restrictions on how states can spend federal transportation dollars. For example, they say, federal policies restrict state and local officials from spending highway and airport grants on passenger rail, even though railroads linking airports to downtowns or other nearby airports could ease both air and highway congestion.

    Canby says current regulations create a "silo" effect, making it difficult to transfer funds between projects.

    Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group, complains that while the trucking, shipping and air cargo industries benefit from indirect federal subsidies, "railroads must finance their infrastructure investment needs through their own earnings and from outside capital providers."

    The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO, estimates that 16 percent of all freight is shipped by trains. In a recent report that calls for greater public-private investment in American rail lines, AASHTO says if this cargo were shifted to trucks, it would cost an additional $64 billion in highway improvements over the next 20 years.

    Organizations that represent the other industries, including the American Trucking Associations and the Air Transport Association, deny they are subsidized, saying they pay their fair share through fuel taxes and other fees.

    The perennial debate over subsidies for Amtrak is not likely to go away. Advocates of improved passenger rail service note that rising oil prices, political uncertainty in major oil-producing nations, and ongoing financial trouble in the airline industry mean that trains will be more important in the future. They also note that Amtrak became a transportation lifeline in the busy Northeast Corridor when the airlines were grounded in the 2001 attacks.

    "This is the best imaginable time to be asking, 'How do we want to move our transportation system forward?"' Bernstein said. "It's a really good time to be taking a look at what we are financing and how we're financing it."

    Timothy Spence can be reached at 202-263-6400 or tspence(at)hearstnp.com

    NYT-03-04-05 1419EST
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