Today, we will take testimony on what promises to be the most challenging issue this Subcommittee will face this year. Amtrak, America’s national passenger railroad, served 25 million passengers last year the highest number in any year in its history. 1.1 million of those passengers were in my home state of Washington.
Even so, there are those in the Administration and in Congress who want to push Amtrak into financial collapse and push 25 million passengers onto our already-crowded highways and runways. The benefits provided by Amtrak, as well as costs, have been debated in Congress every year since the federal government established the corporation 35 years ago. But, make no mistake, this year is different.
This year, Amtrak’s detractors smell blood. As we take each step in the Federal budget process, they have additional reasons to be optimistic that this will be the year that Amtrak service finally grinds to a halt. Up until this year, the path of Amtrak’s funding during each of the years of the Bush Administration has been largely the same. The Bush Administration proposes a funding figure that would throw Amtrak into bankruptcy. The Amtrak Board of Directors requests a sizable funding increase to truly allow the railroad to invest in its infrastructure and modernize. Congress has come along each year and generally provided Amtrak with just enough money to limp along, but not enough to invest in improved service.
Over the life of the Bush Administration, actual appropriations for Amtrak have been about 141 percent above the levels sought by the Administration. But they have also remained some 30 percent below what the Amtrak Board has said it needed.
But, as I said, this year is different. After working hard to keep Amtrak on a "starvation diet" over the last four years, the Bush Administration is now proposing to terminate all subsidies for Amtrak.
Whether it is for state-supported trains like the Cascadia Service in my State, or for the Empire Builder that runs from Seattle to Chicago, or for the service in the Northeast Corridor, the Bush Administration’s request is the same – zero funding. And zero funding means zero service.
While the Administration seeks $360 million for a special rail account in the Surface Transportation Board, that funding by law can only be used to allow certain local mass transit agencies like the Sounder Commuter rail service to continue to operate over Amtrak property once Amtrak has ceased all operations.
Strangely, at the same time the Administration is proposing to zero out subsidies and park all Amtrak trains, Secretary Mineta is flying around the country saying that the Bush Administration is supporting Amtrak—they just want reforms.
In fact, Secretary Mineta has stated publicly that the Bush Administration would support between $1.5 and $2 billion in funding for Amtrak per year, if his reforms were enacted. For me, the fallacy that this Administration might actually support funding for rail service -- reformed or not -- was made clear during our hearing three weeks ago with OMB Director Josh Bolten.
I specifically asked Director Bolten if the Bush Administration would be submitting a new Amtrak budget with reforms or without them. Not once, but twice, Director Bolten made it very clear to us that the Committee has received the only Amtrak budget from the Bush Administration that we are going to get – zero for Amtrak.
One week after we took testimony from Director Bolten, the Congress took another act to help push Amtrak into insolvency. It adopted the conference report on the Budget Resolution. That budget set the cap on discretionary spending at the level consistent with the President’s budget request – a budget request that assumes zero funding for Amtrak.
On March 15th and 16th, during Senate debate on the Budget Resolution, Senators Byrd and Specter offered an amendment to bring the level of funding for Amtrak up to $1.4 billion to provide some certainty and stability to the funding process for Amtrak this year. That amendment was defeated by a vote of 52-46.
So, today, our Subcommittee finds itself in the posture of having to cut and cannibalize other programs -- as we have never done before -- only to see if we can scrape together enough funding from other programs to extend Amtrak for another twelve months. If the Senate had voted differently back in March, we might not be in this predicament.
Today, we are joined by Amtrak’s Board Chairman and President – David Laney and David Gunn. Three weeks ago, Amtrak’s Board finally submitted its grant request of the Appropriations Committee. While I was disappointed that this request arrived some two months late, it is notable that the Amtrak Board -- made up entirely of Bush Administration appointees -- is asking this Subcommittee to provide $1.82 billion for Amtrak next year -- more than a 50 percent increase over current funding.
Much of the discussion of today’s hearing might focus on the assorted proposals to reform Amtrak. We have two separate comprehensive reform proposals – one from the Administration and one from the Amtrak Board. While Senators might want to discuss these proposals, I want to remind my colleagues that these reforms proposals are the responsibility of the Senate Commerce Committee. What this subcommittee needs to focus on is how much these reform proposals are going to cost.
I think my colleagues will find as we discuss these reform packages is that neither of them – not the Administration’s proposal or the Amtrak Board’s proposal -- save money in the near-term. They all require investments over the long-term that will require larger, not smaller, annual appropriations in the future.
In that regard, perhaps the most important testimony we will hear this morning is not from the Bush Administration or the Amtrak Board. The DOT Inspector General, Ken Mead, has been a consistent monitor of Amtrak’s finances. He will testify this morning that Amtrak can no longer limp along on the $1.2 billion in funding it has received in each of the last two years. Indeed, he will testify that in order to maintain that status quo at Amtrak next year, we will need to appropriate between $1.4 and $1.5 billion.
Given the failure of the Byrd/Specter amendment, finding even $1.2 billion will be extraordinarily difficult. Finding $1.4 or $1.5 billion will be a monumental and painful challenge.
Unfortunately, the majority of the Senate voted to put us in this box. Only time will tell if we can find our way out of it. One thing that is certain is that Amtrak’s 25 million passengers will be anxiously watching to see if we succeed.