By ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Amtrak would have to end all of its cross-country routes, including the Empire Builder that serves Montana's Hi-Line, under big cuts in taxpayer subsidies approved by a House panel.
The proposed cuts, which need approval of the full House and Senate, came Wednes-day as an Appro-priations subcommittee approved a transportation funding bill that would slash Amtrak's budget by more than half and limit federal subsidies to $30 per passenger per ride.
The cuts would not apply to most Amtrak service in the Northeast corridor, as well as shorter corridor routes in the Midwest and California. Panel chairman Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., said those routes account for 80 percent of Amtrak's ridership. He said some money-losing routes, such as the Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and Orlando, require federal subsidies of more than $400 per passenger.
''Congress will no longer sanction extremely unprofitable routes,'' Knollenberg said.
But Amtrak generally has stronger support in the Senate, where its money-losing routes serve many states represented by Republicans.
Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns have said they will fight for continued funding of the Empire Builder, which serves 12 Montana communities on a route from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Seattle.
Even Knollenberg seemed to predict that his proposal would be modified later in negotiations with the Senate, comparing Wednesday's action to the third inning in a baseball game likely to go into extra innings.
The move drew protests from committee Democrats who said it would unfairly punish those who live in rural areas.
''There will be 31 states who lose all passenger rail service completely,'' said John Olver, D-Mass.
Knollenberg said that the measure would not mandate the closure of any routes and that state and local governments could opt to subsidize them.
Montana's congressional delegation has panned that plan. Baucus, a Democrat, said the House action was outrageous and would be ''a death knell to the Empire Builder. Anti-Amtrak House members have just picked a fight with the Senate.''
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who sits on the full House Appropriations Committee, where the measure now heads, said he intends to fight against the proposed cuts and press for full funding of the Empire Builder.
The new measure would provide $550 million for Amtrak, including $110 million for passenger subsidies on money-losing routes. Amtrak requested $1.8 billion in federal funding for next year and says that the House proposal would force a shutdown.
During last year's budget cycle, lawmakers funded Amtrak at $1.2 billion.
''The practical impact of $550 million in federal support would be the same as zero funding for Amtrak, and they know it,'' said Amtrak President and CEO David Gunn.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a statement that the subcommittee's action ''sends the same signal as that of the administration: Amtrak must reform.''
The administration contends that eliminating operating subsidies would leave the passenger rail system with stronger routes and entice subsidies from local governments.
Among the routes that would lose subsidies are one between Chicago and New Orleans and the Auto Train to Florida, as well as the Lake Shore Limited from the East Coast to Chicago, and the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland, Calif.
In his February budget, Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy and setting aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad ceases operating.