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Amtrak Again Avoids Fiscal Derailment. But Whats Next?

March 4, 2003

The on-again, off-again saga surrounding Amtrak funding took a turn for the better following passage of the fiscal 2003 budget in late February that funds the system for the remainder of the fiscal year.

But the national passenger train systemitself often resembling a damsel tied to the tracks while a train quickly approacheswill be bogged down with a growing list of conditions and administrative hurdles to obtaining the $1.05 billion promised. And because this years budget passed four months late, the next annual spending battle is only a few short months away.

"Sustaining Amtrak operations will be an ongoing challenge," Amtrak said in a statement posted its web site. "Though the budget will be extremely tight, this funding level should be sufficient to operate the national system for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Amtrak will continue to bring greater levels of efficiency to its operations without degrading the level of service to our customers and the safety we provide to our customers and employees."

Although the $1.05 billion budget was 10 percent less than Amtrak requested, it is far more than either President Bush or congressional Republicans originally proposed.

The windfall will allow the system to resume long-deferred maintenance on cars. But instead of being funded directly by the federal government, Amtrak must apply for grants through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Amtrak will also be required to establish a detailed business plan and file monthly reports with the transportation department. That change, which will create an create an extra layer of bureaucracy at best, was intended as an extra measure of control for the Bush administration.

"If Amtrak wants to do something and the Department of Transportation and the administration dont want it done, they wont release the funds," said IBEW Railroad Department International Representative Bill Bohne . "Thats what were fearful of."

Lost in the shuffle amid the spending feuds are the workers, who have worked without a contract since 1998. "Amtraks already underpaid workers continue to pay for the passenger railroads shaky future," said a statement by the leaders of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD), AFL-CIO. "Treating Amtrak workers as second class citizens must end."

In 2001, Amtrak workers earned approximately 28 percent less than those in freight rail, TTD figures show.

The New York Times editorialized recently that "we are still running a railroad on the cheap. Congress has insured that Amtrak will be able to hobble along for another year but little is being invested in long-deferred capital needs, including upgrades of antiquated tracks and equipment along the Northeast Corridor."

Next years budget battle over Amtrak is already taking shape, with Amtrak requesting approximately $2 billion and the Bush administration proposing $900 million. Amtrak, which is approximately $4 billion in debt, had been operating since last summers fiscal crisis in temporary federal assistance.

Of the 25,000 workers employed by Amtrak, some 1,300 are IBEW members.