White House Backs Continuing Amtrak Aid

NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Continued financing for Amtrak appears to have the backing of the Bush administration, despite a panel's recommendation that Congress disband the money-losing rail line and transfer its most popular routes to private companies, the Times-Picayune reports.

Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday that he would like Congress to give Amtrak $521 million in the 2003 budget, and speed up reauthorization of its charter to continue providing passenger rail service.

"As all of you know, rail is a very good substitute for congested air travel," Mineta said.

The expression of support for the national passenger railroad comes as the Amtrak Reform Council is preparing to deliver a report to Capitol Hill suggesting that long-haul rail lines and perhaps other routes be put up for bid among private companies.

"Congress can accept or throw away our recommendations," said Gilbert Carmichael, chairman of the council. "But this is the time to decide if we want to continue with the old Amtrak and all its old problems, or have a new Amtrak and a new national rail policy."

New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, president of the Conference of Mayors, is using the group's annual winter meeting to demonstrate support for the beleaguered railroad. He arranged for Amtrak's new high-speed Acela Express train to transport about 300 mayors Thursday from Washington to New York City, where the four-day meeting continued with a call for continued federal help to rebuild the city from the Sept. 11 destruction.

"Our lack of support for rail service is a terrible mistake," said Morial, who contends that Amtrak's critics ignore subsidies given most of the major rail lines in Europe, and the financial support the federal government now gives aviation and the nation's highways.

"The American people want new options for travel," he said. "The airlines are congested, the highways are congested, and this is a great opportunity to provide them with new options."

Morial said he is pleased the Bush administration is supporting continued financing for Amtrak, but urged it to go even further and support a modernization of the railway, including high-speed rail.

The mayors have supported a proposal by Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to improve Amtrak's decaying infrastructure through a $12 billion bond package. Biden said such a proposal could ensure better and more frequent rail service, which, given the vulnerabilities of aviation exposed on Sept. 11, is in the nation's best interest.