By Tim Leeds
Whether Amtrak will receive the $1.2 billion it says it needs to keep operating will soon be in the hands of a U.S. House and Senate conference committee.
"Hopefully it will pass so we can operate without the concern of shutdown later in the fiscal year," Dan Stressel, a spokesman in Amtrak's Washington, D.C., office, said today.
Amtrak announced last February that unless it received $1.2 billion in appropriations, it would have to shut down long-distance routes to save money. President Bush requested $521 million for Amtrak in his 2002 budget. The appropriation wasn't resolved last year and Amtrak has continued to operate under a continuance of its previous budget.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., proposed an amendment late last week to raise the Senate appropriation to $1.2 billion, which passed with bipartisan support, Stressel said. The House proposal is $762 million.
The House isn't likely to back the bigger appropriation, a spokesman for Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said today.
"The House leadership has not indicated they would support that," Brad Keena said.
But Rehberg will continue to fight to keep Amtrak operating across Montana, Keena added.
"It is very high on his list of priorities," he said.
Bill Lombardi, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, said the Montana Demcrat also will continue to support giving the passenger rail service the funding it needs.
"He's been a big, strong supporter of Amtrak because of its importance to our economy, to jobs, especially on the Hi-Line," Lombardi said.
David Gunn, who took over as Amtrak president last spring, has maintained that the passenger rail service needs $1.2 billion. But unlike his predecessor, Gunn said he will not shut down part of Amtrak's service to save money. The entire system will operate until it runs out of money, he said.
Stressel said shutting the long-distance routes isn't an option. The cuts would save Amtrak almost nothing in the first year, and very little in the second, he said.
"If we were to cut the 18 long-distance trains tomorrow the expenses would still require that we would shut down," Stressel said.
One of those long-distance routes is the Empire Builder, which runs through Havre.
Amtrak has enough money right now to continue operating. But unless the service receives the $1.2 billion for this fiscal year, Amtrak will shut down by spring or sooner, Stressel said.
"We wouldn't make it into the summer, that's for certain," he said.
Stressel said there is hope for constructive debate in Congress, which was questionable in the past. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Amtrak in the past, Stressel said.
But since Gunn took over the service, McCain has said he is optimistic that reforms can be made, Stressel said.
McCain's spokesman could not be reached for comment this morning.
Gunn has been very open and honest about the problems of Amtrak, Stressel said. A catch-phrase on Capitol Hill since Gunn took over is "No more happy talk covering dismal results," he said.
Some of the actions Gunn has taken include phasing out the express freight service Amtrak offered, which had become unmanageable, Stressel said. Others were reducing the number of vice presidents, from about 80 to about 20, and restructuring the service closer to a traditional railroad.
"We no longer need a team of 16 people to make a decision; we need two," he said.
Repairs and deferred maintenance have also been addressed, Stressel said. Last fiscal year, 105 cars were unuseable. Work is under way to get them back in use, and a couple are repaired and a good number should be back in use by next October, Stressel said.
"They'll be able to start generating riders and revenue, instead of sitting on the sidelines generating rust," he said.