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Amtrak must be overhauled or junked, Secretary Mineta says

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration's message to Amtrak is simple: Change or die.

If Amtrak isn't dramatically overhauled, the Bush administration is prepared to essentially junk it and save only the commuter-rail segments, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Wednesday. That's preferable, he said, to spending about $1 billion a year in subsidies to keep the cross-country passenger-rail system alive.

In its 2006 budget, the Bush administration proposes eliminating Amtrak's annual subsidy, which is $1.2 billion this year. The idea is to force Congress and Amtrak to institute sweeping change. Bush would limit Amtrak to owning and operating trains. Others—including state or local governments—would own the rails, stations and physical property, much as private businesses run airlines but the government maintains airports.

Every other mode of transportation has changed dramatically since the 1970s, when trucking and aviation were deregulated, but not Amtrak, Mineta said.

Amtrak, which was created in 1971 when the government took over bankrupt private railroads, carries about 24 million passengers a year. In addition to cross-country and inter-city rail lines, it operates commuter services for several regions. It operates rails over 22,000 miles of routes and owns 730 miles of rails, mostly between Boston and Washington. The company has more than 500 stations in 46 states, all but Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Under the Bush plan, states along a given line would pay for rail upkeep. If a state wouldn't pay, stations along the line in that state would be closed and trains wouldn't stop in them, Mineta said.

The Department of Transportation is discussing the sale of Amtrak infrastructure, said Jeffrey Rosen, the agency's general counsel.

If Congress continues to balk at Bush's vision for Amtrak, the Bush administration would push to spend only $360 million to keep commuter-rail systems alive, mostly in the Northeast, Mineta said at a briefing.

But if Congress and Amtrak adopt the Bush plan, the administration is willing to spend about $1 billion a year in grants to state and local governments to help run the former parts of Amtrak, Mineta said. That money isn't in the president's budget, but would be part of a supplemental spending request. The grants would have to be matched 50-50 by state and local funds.

Amtrak officials and supporters called the administration's plan irresponsible.

In a message to employees last week, Amtrak President David Gunn said Bush officials "have no plan for Amtrak other than bankruptcy."

Amtrak supporters voiced confidence that Congress will keep providing the money the system needs even if Bush won't, as has been true in the past. Federal subsidies have increased from $520 million in 2001 to $1.2 billion in each of the last two years.

"Amtrak will be back and it will get barely enough to survive," said Michael Dukakis, former vice chairman of the Amtrak Reform Board and former governor of Massachusetts. "The states have no interest in this."

"The federal government has never adequately invested in passenger rail; it's always been on a starvation diet," said former Amtrak Board of Directors Chairman John Robert Smith, the Republican mayor of Meridian, Miss. "It's had a lot of near-death experiences. ... To push the company to bankruptcy ... is a dangerous game to play."

While Rosen said separating infrastructure and operations "might produce increased opportunities," Dukakis said it would be a disaster.

"Anybody who runs a railroad—and I have, because the governor runs the MBTA (Boston's subway system)—knows when you divide the responsibility for operations and infrastructure you're asking for trouble," Dukakis said. "This Balkanization thing is preposterous."

Dukakis pointed to what he called a successful rail system throughout the Northeast under Gunn as proof that it can work well if properly funded.

Critics say that's not true.

Joseph Vranich, former Amtrak spokesman, ex-High Speed Rail Association president and the author of a new book, "End of the Line," said the Bush approach might be the dose of tough love that a badly managed Amtrak needs.

"Congress is like a doctor on drugs, and they've got a patient on the table that's hemorrhaging," Vranich said. "What the doctors want to do is pump it up with blood. What the Bush administration is trying to do is slap that doctor awake so he can do the right thing."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040701 AMTRAK

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Norman Mineta

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