|[an error occurred while processing this directive]||
Amtrak still runs; transportation secretary says solution to help with money woes 'very close'
By Laurence Arnold, Associated Press, 6/25/02
WASHINGTON -- Amtrak told jittery commuter rail agencies Tuesday that it would keep operating at least through the start of the busy July 4 holiday weekend, and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said a solution for its fiscal crisis was "very, very close."
Mineta said the problem could be solved by Wednesday, but he offered no details on how a $200 million Amtrak budget gap would be closed. Amtrak says it will have to shut down without the money.
"No one wants to see Amtrak die," Mineta said. "We're coming along very well. We're very, very close to coming to a solution to help Amtrak."
Amtrak President David Gunn, who had warned a shutdown could begin as early as this week, said the railroad can keep running into next week, but "our cash situation becomes critical" next Thursday or Friday. Thursday is July 4, traditionally a busy holiday for Amtrak.
Without a resolution by then, Amtrak could begin shutting down the system by recalling its long-distance trains, which travel farthest from its rail yards. A systemwide shutdown would take four days, Gunn said.
Gunn held a conference call to update state transportation leaders worried about reverberations from a shutdown of the passenger line. Amtrak owns tracks and tunnels used by some commuter rail lines and operates other systems for state or regional authorities.
Pete Sklannik, chief operating officer of Virginia Railway Express, said Gunn advised the commuter agencies to make contingency plans that could take effect July 12.
"If I had $200 million, I'd loan it to Amtrak right now," Sklannik said. "The riding public is going to be caught in the middle of all this, and it's just not right."
Gunn said Amtrak officials are in regular contact with Mineta's office and continue to hope for a loan guarantee to help Amtrak get the money it needs.
An alternative would be an appropriation by Congress. Senate Democrats urged President Bush on Tuesday to include $205 million for Amtrak in an emergency anti-terror financial package.
Amtrak Vice Chairman Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor, said an easier solution would be for the Federal Railroad Administration, part of the Transportation Department, to sign off on Amtrak's request for a loan guarantee.
"A stroke of a pen will do this," Dukakis said.
Mineta, who sits on Amtrak's seven-member board, was host for a closed-door board meeting Monday and emerged briefly to declare himself "confident that we will be able to avoid a shutdown of services."
The meeting ended with no firm agreement on how Amtrak would get the money it insists it needs to survive through September.
Gunn said Mineta proposed a loan guarantee to help Amtrak get about $100 million -- half the amount it says it needs -- along with a series of "self-help-type actions" Amtrak could take to make up the remainder.
One of many options broached by Mineta, Gunn said, was to mortgage Chicago's Union Station, which Amtrak owns. Gunn said Amtrak officials reviewed that suggestion and others but quickly ruled them out as impractical or not helpful.
"I won't say it was a dry hole, but there wasn't a lot of water in it," he said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the administration wanted Amtrak to ask its debtors, including states, to speed up their payments while Amtrak slows payment of its debts.
But Gunn said transportation officials merely urged Amtrak to be aggressive in seeking outstanding payments.
Transportation Department spokesman Chet Lunner said Mineta offered Amtrak "a number of options," but he would not elaborate.
The Bush administration has insisted that Amtrak receive no more government money until it reforms its operations and finances.
Mineta last week proposed ending federal operating subsidies, allowing competition for passenger rail, making states more responsible for paying for train service, and replacing Amtrak as owner of the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor.
Labor unions oppose many of the proposed changes. Labor leaders met Tuesday with Mineta and said the discussion focused on resolving Amtrak's immediate cash crisis, not on Mineta's wide-ranging proposals.
"This is not the time for massive reforms of Amtrak, because there is no time to accomplish reform," said Edward Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department. He said the labor leaders and Mineta "agreed we would have a pretty robust debate down the road" regarding reforms.