Mineta: Amtrak Solution 'Very Close'
JONATHAN D. SALANT
Jun. 26, 2002
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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The original Wednesday deadline for shutting down Amtrak arrived with the trains still running and administration officials and lawmakers trying to solve the railroad's fiscal problems.
Amtrak announced Tuesday it would keep running at least through the beginning of the Independence Day holiday weekend, but would face a severe fiscal crunch around July 4.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, meanwhile, said a solution was ``very, very close.'' Administration sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the discussions centered on offering Amtrak loan guarantees to allow the railroad to borrow money.
Amtrak President David Gunn has said the passenger railroad needs $200 million to keep operating through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Amtrak trains carry about 60,000 riders a day, about 35,000 of them in the Northeast Corridor. An Amtrak shutdown would impact not only its riders but also several commuter lines, which either run on Amtrak-owned tracks and tunnels or are operated by Amtrak.
Pete Sklannik, chief operating officer of Virginia Railway Express, said Gunn advised the commuter agencies to make contingency plans that could take effect July 12.
``If I had $200 million, I'd loan it to Amtrak right now,'' Sklannik said. ``The riding public is going to be caught in the middle of all this, and it's just not right.''
Lawmakers of both parties, meanwhile, are trying to include $205 million for Amtrak in a supplemental spending bill now being negotiated by the Senate, House and Bush administration.
``Amtrak has a vital homeland security role,'' said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. ``The railroad is a viable alternative to highways and airways. To allow Amtrak to close its doors now, when the terrorist threats and attack warnings come almost daily, would be irresponsible.''
Key senators and House members _ both Republicans and Democrats _ have signed letters in support of the money. Fifty senators _ half the chamber _ signed one letter, according to Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the Senate Commerce Committee chairman.
In a separate letter, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, said: ``I'm willing to consider a direct appropriation under certain conditions.''
Amtrak Vice Chairman Michael Dukakis said an easier solution would be for the Federal Railroad Administration, part of the Transportation Department, to sign off on Amtrak's request for a loan guarantee.
Gunn said Mineta proposed a loan guarantee to help Amtrak get about $100 million _ half the amount it says it needs _ along with a series of ``self-help-type actions'' Amtrak could take to make up the remainder.
One of many options broached by Mineta, Gunn said, was to mortgage Chicago's Union Station, which Amtrak owns. Gunn said Amtrak officials reviewed that suggestion and others but quickly ruled them out as impractical or not helpful.
Mineta last week proposed ending federal operating subsidies for Amtrak, which it has had all during its 31-year history; allowing competition for passenger rail; making states more responsible for paying for train service; and replacing Amtrak as owner of the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak lost $1.1 billion in 2001.
On the Net:
Transportation Department: http://www.dot.gov
Virginia Railway Express: http://www.vre.org