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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005 01:13 pm

Train wreck

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Amtrak president David Gunn calls the proposed cuts “irresponsible”
PHOTO BY MICHAEL MULVEY/DALLAS MORNING NEWS

The Bush administration has threatened to derail the nation’s largest passenger train corporation by eliminating all federal subsidies to Amtrak.

The proposal has created a firestorm in Illinois as the state’s political leaders say such a move would cause mass layoffs and isolate many rural communities that depend on train travel.

Bush proposed the Amtrak cuts on Monday as part of his $2.57 trillion federal- budget proposal, which seeks to boost defense and homeland-security spending but slashes scores of domestic programs.

The president’s budget calls for cuts to farm subsidies, education and environmental programs, and health-care and housing payments for the poor.

Supporters say the proposed cuts to more than 150 federally funded programs are critical to reducing a record-high federal deficit that is projected to reach $427 billion this year.

Critics, meanwhile, have called Bush’s proposal misleading since it does not include several major initiatives, such as costs for revamping Social Security and funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite proposed funding increases for airlines, the federal allocation for Amtrak has been left entirely blank in the budget for fiscal year 2006, which begins Oct. 1.

Amtrak president David Gunn called the proposal “irresponsible and a surprising disappointment.”

“In a word, they have no plan for Amtrak other than bankruptcy,” Gunn said in a statement released to Amtrak employees.

The federal government has pressured Amtrak to become financially self-sufficient since its inception in 1970, but the company has never made a profit, says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

The Bush administration has pushed to cut Amtrak funding every year since 2001, and Congress, in turn, has restored much of the funding. For the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, Amtrak requested $1.8 billion, the administration proposed $900 million, and Congress appropriated $1.2 billion.

This budget proposal, however, represents the administration’s most radical yet. Amtrak’s operating subsidy, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of its annual operating budget, would disappear.

The president’s budget would also eliminate $250 million for railroad rehabilitation and $20 million for the development of high-speed rail.

In Illinois, the federal government has already contributed some $50 million toward the construction of high-speed rail along the route from Chicago to St. Louis, which runs through Springfield.

The project, which has received $80 million in state funding, would enable Amtrak’s daily trains to travel at speeds as high as 110 mph, up from the current 79 mph, and cut an hour-and-a-half off travel time.

On Tuesday, Gov. Rod Blagojevich sent Bush a letter opposing the Amtrak cuts. It was cosigned by 20 Illinois congressmen and U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Barack Obama.

“If the Congress passes your budget as proposed, it will severely set back bringing high-speed rail to the Midwest, if not kill the initiative altogether,” Blagojevich wrote.

Blagojevich also noted that wiping out federal subsidies to Amtrak could result in 2,000 lost jobs and leave many college students stranded in parts of the state where the options for commuting are few.

“In many of our downstate communities,” the governor wrote, “passenger rail is the only public transportation available.”

The Amtrak cuts could also have a direct impact on new development planned for Springfield.

Last month, Springfield Mass Transit District won a $70,000 state grant to study the feasibility of creating a transportation hub in the capital city.

Jim Moll, project manager for Hanson Professional Services, which has produced similar studies in the past, says the aim is to create an intermodal center for SMTD and Greyhound buses, taxis, local shuttles, and Amtrak trains.

“If Amtrak doesn’t run,” says Moll, “it would change a lot about our need for an intermodal site.”

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