Springfield Journal Register

April 19, 2002

Committee approves bill for $4.6 billion a year in Amtrak aid 
Panel also votes to put O'Hare expansion agreement into law 


WASHINGTON - Making the first move in the debate over Amtrak's future, the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday
approved a bill to authorize $4.6 billion a year through 2007 for the financially troubled national passenger rail service.

Also Thursday, the panel agreed to put into federal law an agreement to expand O'Hare International Airport.

The committee, which voted 20-3 to approve the Amtrak reauthorization bill, included $35 billion in loan guarantees to help states such as Illinois and its neighbors develop high-speed rail systems.

Illinois and eight nearby states have formed a coalition to link major cities with trains that travel at 110 mph, about 30 mph faster than current trains. Illinois' top priority is a Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis route.

Amtrak, which was supposed to be self-sufficient by this year, has threatened to cut routes if it doesn't receive $1.2 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Although a congressionally appointed panel concluded in February that Amtrak should be split up and opened to private
competition, the recommendation hasn't been warmly received on Capitol Hill.

Congress has never put as much money into the passenger rail system as it has for airports and highways, complained Senate
Commerce Committee Chairman Earnest F. Hollings, D-S.C.

While Amtrak has some strong supporters, it also has some powerful critics.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was rebuffed by the committee in his attempts to put more controls on Amtrak spending but is
expected to try again on the Senate floor. McCain has proposed authorizing $4.6 billion total over the next four years for Amtrak.

"We literally cannot afford the status quo," said McCain, reminding his colleagues of Amtrak's dismal track record.

House transportation leaders are considering a $1.2 billion, one-year Amtrak reauthorization. 

The Bush administration has been slow to weigh in but met with House leaders Thursday in an initial exchange.

A General Accounting Office study released this week criticized Amtrak officials for not adequately researching the impacts of
their decisions on routes and services.

On the airport bill, the committee voted 19-4 to cement in federal law an agreement between Illinois Gov. George Ryan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. 

Efforts to expand O'Hare have been thwarted for decades by partisan bickering, and supporters want to ensure that politics won't again interfere after Ryan leaves office.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., is the main opponent of the bill, which was authored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Fitzgerald argued that expansion of O'Hare would kill the need to build an airport at Peotone that he supports.

The committee rejected Fitzgerald's attempt to require the Federal Aviation Administration to consider other alternatives including Peotone, located south of Chicago. 

The committee approved an amendment aimed at protecting small airlines' access to O'Hare.

The bill moves to the full Senate, where Fitzgerald could single-handedly block it.

A similar bill is being proposed by Rep. Bill Lipinski, D-Chicago, in the House.