A House appropriations subcommittee yesterday approved a fiscal 2004 budget that effectively would shut down Amtrak, slash funds for new transit systems and cut essential air service subsidies to 50 small airports while boosting highway funding.
Setting up a battle in the full Appropriations Committee and possibly on the House floor, the bill reflected the priorities of subcommittee Chairman Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), a longtime Amtrak foe, but it goes against the sentiment of the full House. A majority of House members had signed a letter asking Istook to grant Amtrak the full $1.8 billion requested by Amtrak President David L. Gunn.
In addition, both the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier voted to authorize $2 billion a year for Amtrak for at least three years.
Istook's bill would grant $580 million to Amtrak, which is $320 million below President Bush's request. It would require that $300 million be spent on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, far less than officials say is required to keep that line running. It also requires the Transportation Department to ensure sufficient funds for commuter operations now run by Amtrak.
Gunn said the subcommittee's bill is so unrealistic that it would lead to the immediate shutdown of all Amtrak operations, including the Northeast Corridor, in addition to all commuter service that operate over Amtrak lines and all state-supported regional service, including the extensive California rail system.
"You would crash," he said. "You would shut down. It would be a chaotic shutdown."
Gunn noted that any Amtrak budget must first include $261 million for debt service, leaving $319 million to do everything else. However, he noted that the Northeast Corridor needs a minimum of $460 million in capital funds just to get the deteriorated track back to an acceptable condition. In addition, the law requires Amtrak to give 180 days notice before taking off a train, and must pay several years of labor protection payments to the thousands of employees who would be put out of work.
"It's physically, financially and legislatively impossible to do it," Gunn said.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), ranking Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee, promised "a long and arduous committee markup of the bill."
Istook said his priority is highways, which would receive $34.1 billion, $4.8 billion more than the president requested and $2.5 billion more than the current fiscal year. He said Amtrak "has not gotten sufficiently serious about restructuring."
The bill would grant $14.1 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration, $571 million more than the current fiscal year and $75 million more than Bush requested. But it would cut back 60 percent on the essential air services program, which subsidizes service to small airports. Democrats said that would end service to 50 small airports.
The legislation includes $1.1 billion for new rail transit systems. That is $150 million less than fiscal 2003, and $410 million less than Bush requested.
Democrats said the bill also cuts out tourism promotion funds and eliminates bicycle trail funding.