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Guest Commentary

Don't sacrifice Amtrak service

By U.S. SEN.

PATTY MURRAY

I am deeply concerned over the Bush Administration's approach to the operation of passenger rail service in this country.

At my Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee hearing [on June 20], Amtrak's new president, David Gunn, laid bare that the administration's current budget request is not only woefully inadequate, but will result in the shutdown of passenger rail service.

Yet the administration has said it would not approve any addition to Amtrak's budget prior to the approval of a radical overhaul. To date, Congress has not seen a formal proposal from the administration. We have only heard the Transportation Secretary make a speech before the Chamber of Commerce. The concepts he outlined struck many people across the country as controversial and problematic.

One administration principle is to turn control of the nation's passenger rail service over to the states. While Americans enjoy an interstate highway system and an air transportation system supported by the federal government, it seems strange to suggest that the federal government would walk away from our critical rail infrastructure.

Collectively, the states already face between $40 billion and $50 billion in deficits, and their burden will only grow heavier with your proposal to cut $8.6 billion in highway transportation funding. In reality, the states can no more afford the responsibility of our national railroad system than they could pay for Medicare.

So presuming, as Secretary Mineta conceded last week, that reauthorization of Amtrak will not happen this year, you have put Amtrak in an untenable situation.

As the straight-talking new president of Amtrak testified, Amtrak cannot operate on the $521 million you have proposed. Indeed, to sustain passenger rail service in this country, Mr. Gunn contends that more than twice that amount, $1.2 billion, is needed. But any discussion of Amtrak's 2003 budget will be moot if the railroad does not receive an immediate guarantee of $200 million. Mr. Gunn said that he would begin shutting down passenger rail service nationwide by the middle of next week without that funding.

This will not only impact Amtrak passengers, but regional transit systems throughout the nation, especially in the busy Northeast Corridor. Many commuter trains run on Amtrak-owned track or are dispatched or operated by Amtrak crews. An Amtrak shutdown would cause massive disruptions to men and women all over the country trying to get to work.

On Monday (June 24), Mr. Gunn sent over an application for a loan guarantee to avert a shutdown. The Department of Transportation has now been reviewing that application for a full week. The loan guarantee should be approved.

I agree with Sen. Byrd (D.-W. Va.) that another way to address this problem is through the 2002 Emergency Supplemental spending bill. But this is only a real solution if the conference can move expeditiously. With administration veto threats and House delays, time is running out.

I am eager to work with you to solve this problem and to ensure the continuation of passenger rail service. Given the congestion on America's roads and the precarious state of some of our airlines, now is a particularly inopportune time to shut down passenger rail service.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D.-Wash.) is chair of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. She sent this letter to President Bush on June 21.

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