Amtrak president speaks at UI, rails against Bush budget proposal

By Nate Sandstrom

President Bush’s budget proposal would remove all federal funding for Amtrak, eliminating inter-city train travel in the United States, said Amtrak President David L. Gunn during a speech at the Beckman Institute on Thursday.

The White House budget proposal criticized Amtrak for high debt and low ridership. Amtrak has received $29 billion from taxpayers since its inception in 1971, according to the proposal.

The administration has said it would not fund Amtrak until reforms are made, but Gunn said he has not been given specific requests as to what reforms are wanted.

Gunn also criticized the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) for not having a long-range plan for rail travel in the United States.

“Tell us what you want us to do and we can do it. …The fact of the matter is they (the USDOT) do not have an implementable plan,” he said.

Gunn said it was unrealistic to expect to have a rail system in the United States that is not federally subsidized, and that it is a mistake for the federal government to fund highways and airlines but not railways.

“Do you want to chew up scarce airport capacity, or do you want to get them on a train?” Gunn asked.

The proposed cut comes at a time when Amtrak has made progress, Gunn said. The number of Amtrak passengers has increased since Gunn took over in 2002.

More than 25 million trips were taken on Amtrak in 2004, an increase of more than a million and a record high. More than three million of those trips were taken in Illinois, and 76,633 were from the Champaign station, according to Amtrak’s Web site.

The administration has proposed splitting Amtrak’s service in the Northeast Corridor, the area between Washington D.C. and Boston, from Amtrak’s long-distance service in the rest of the country. The company would then turn rail service outside the Northeast to individual states, which would bid contracts for other operators.

The proposal to split service has a practical obstacle, said Ross Capon, University alumnus and executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Private companies own most tracks outside of the Northeast, and they are more willing to accept the insurance of a large company like Amtrak than smaller companies, Capon said.

“If the states become responsible for acquiring insurance, they will probably not be able to do it. Most states are not used to the type of exposure Amtrak deals with everyday,” he said.

If Amtrak went bankrupt, the budget proposal would still allocate $360 million to maintain services in the Northeast Corridor. However, Gunn said if bankruptcy occurred, he did not know who would operate rail travel in the Corridor.

Many Illinois politicians have also criticized the proposal to cut federal money for Amtrak. This week, Gov. Rod Blagojevich wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to reconsider the plan.

“Amtrak provides vital and affordable transportation service for many of our families, seniors on fixed incomes, our members of the armed forces and students,” he said in the letter.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has been a vocal critic of Bush’s proposal. He said the plan would cause more than 2,000 Illinois residents to lose their jobs and cost the state millions of dollars in business.

The proposed budget now goes before Congress for approval. In the past, Congress has often made major changes to presidential budget proposals. Last year, Bush proposed a $318 million cut in Amtrak funding, but Congress later overturned those proposed cut, allocating $1.2 billion to the rail company.

Many Republicans have said it is too early to worry about exact figures.

“Let me reiterate that the President’s budget is only a proposal,” said Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.) in a statement. Johnson said fiscal responsibility is important because of the record government deficit, but that it was necessary to maintain Amtrak service in Illinois.

Gunn said he was confident that Amtrak would receive money from Congress. He said Amtrak needs around $1.5 billion to operate this year.

Capon was less sure of the funding for this year.

“I think it’s going to be a very tough fight because of the number of programs (Bush is) seeking cuts in,” Capon said.