U.S. Mayors Support Amtrak

WASHINGTON -- According to a wire service, the U.S. Conference of Mayors pledged its support Thursday for Amtrak, the nation's financially troubled passenger railway that Congress may overhaul this year.

New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, president of the mayors' group, called for ``a strong, unequivocal commitment to building passenger rail in America'' as a way to help the nation's cities.

Morial and about 200 other mayors boarded a high-speed Acela Express train for a midafternoon trip from Washington to New York City, where they were to hold the second half of their annual winter meeting.

The support of local leaders is particularly valuable to Amtrak this year. Amtrak's authorization from Congress is expiring, and several independent monitors say the railway will fail to meet a 1997 order from Congress to wean itself from annual operating subsidies by the end of this year.

The congressionally appointed Amtrak Reform Council is preparing to recommend that the government break up Amtrak and open passenger rail to competition.

Morial said that would be unwise.

“We support the idea of Amtrak being the primary passenger rail system in America,” he said. “I don't see that any of the other alternatives would offer better service or more efficiency. Why create a system of artificial competition?”

The mayors sent letters Wednesday to President Bush and congressional leaders urging the reauthorization of Amtrak and “development of a national rail policy for the 21st century.”

Amtrak President George Warrington said the letters show the nation's mayors want “to strengthen our economy and strengthen our security by investing in intercity passenger rail, especially high-speed rail.”

John Robert Smith, the mayor of Meridian, Miss., discussed Amtrak with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and said Mineta “understands there certainly must be a strong rail component in transportation.”

“What that is, as the White House sees it, has yet to be determined,” said Smith, a member of Amtrak's governing board. “We're trying to shape how the White House will see that component.”

The Conference of Mayors added the trip to New York to show support for the city's recovery from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Amtrak offered a chartered Acela Express and did not charge the mayors for the ride. The train made a stop in Philadelphia for some mayors not continuing on to New York.

The Acela Express, introduced 13 months ago and serving the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, has a top speed of 150 mph.