By BOB ANEZ
Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Montana and other states will have to get involved in the railroad business if they want to keep Amtrak passenger service, a Bush administration official said Tuesday.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta used a telephone news conference with Montana reporters to plug the administration's proposal, unveiled in mid-April, to transform Amtrak into a program relying on federal and state funding for its operation and local officials making decisions about rail service.
The legislation would require states to match federal grants that would be used to maintain rails, bridges, tunnels and depots. The failure of Montana to participate would mean the Empire Builder across the northern tier, the state's only Amtrak route, would roll through Montana without making any of its 12 stops, Mineta said.
''This is just a proposal to shut Amtrak down - nothing more, nothing less,'' said Gov. Brian Schweitzer. ''This is trying to shift hundreds of millions of dollars to the shoulders of the states'' that cannot afford the expense, he said.
''We don't have it. No chance. They know that. They know what they're doing,'' he said.
Mineta's remarks came the day before Schweitzer's whistle-stop tour of the Hi-Line aboard the westbound Amtrak to demonstrate support of the service to five Amtrak officials.
Mineta said the plan is not an attempt to kill Amtrak. If the administration wanted to abolish the program it would recommend nothing and allow Congress to eventually come to the conclusion it can no longer afford to subsidize a poorly run passenger rail system, he said.
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black declined comment.
Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said Mineta is misleading the public.
''This is an attempt to kill off Amtrak while convincing the uninitiated that you're doing something constructive,'' he said.
Not only will states be unable to come up with their share of the money needed to keep long-distance Amtrak service, but trains will not be able to simply pass through such states without stopping because they will forfeit any revenue in those states, Capon said.
''Mineta is living in a fantasy world,'' he said.
Mineta said the federal government has spent plenty on Amtrak since it started in 1971 and ''I'm not sure what we have to show for the $30 billion that we have poured into it. We're not afraid to spend the money, but we want value for what taxpayers are putting into the rail service.''
He said he doesn't know how much money a state like Montana would have to contribute to keep its rail service. That, Mineta said, depends on the condition of tracks and other infrastructure.
Amtrak lost $908 million on its long-distance trains last year, the equivalent of $214 per passenger. While the Empire Builder, which runs between Chicago and Seattle, lost $172 per passenger last year, 12 other routes had a larger loss rate, Amtrak figures show.
Under the administration proposal, Amtrak would focus on running the trains, and states would be responsible for maintaining the infrastructure. Regional, state or local officials would decide what service best meets an area's rail passenger needs. In the case of Montana, that could involve moving Amtrak service to a southern route through some of the state's most populous cities, Mineta said.
The Empire Builder serves only about 3.5 percent of the state's population and is late a third of the time as it travels once a day in each direction, he noted. ''When you look at those numbers, you have to wonder if Montana is getting the service it deserves,'' he added.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., panned the administration's plan.
''I cannot and will not support any program that would shift the burden of funding Amtrak onto the backs of Montanans,'' Baucus said. ''That's exactly what this plan would do. This proposal would dismantle Amtrak as we know it. That's unacceptable and I cannot stand by and let that happen.''
''Rural communities shouldn't have to shoulder the burden for passenger rail service,'' Rehberg said. ''I'm going to fight this plan. It's time for legislation that would provide adequate funding to keep the Empire Builder running.''
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said he needs more details. ''I would like to look over the full administration proposal, but I'm a little skeptical about dumping this cost onto the states,'' he said.