Springfield State Journal Register

June 25,2002

Mineta sure Amtrak won't shut down 
But he can't say yet how it will be saved 


WASHINGTON - Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta on Monday said he was confident that negotiations to aid financially troubled Amtrak would avert a threatened shutdown this week of the nation's passenger rail service.

However, he had no resolution to announce.

"I am confident that we will be able to avoid a shutdown in services," said Mineta, emerging briefly from an emergency meeting of Amtrak's board of directors early Monday evening.

"We have much more work to do, but we will continue to work on an effective solution that resolves Amtrak's financial problems," Mineta said.

Any solution will require Amtrak to cut expenses, as well as federal financial help, he said.

"This must be a team effort," Mineta said. "The burden is not on the (Bush) administration alone to save the rail system from bankruptcy - nor should it be."

But Amtrak president David Gunn and Amtrak board chairman John Robert Smith said Mineta's pledge won't stop a shutdown.

"There has been no reconciliation of the simple fact that Amtrak is running out of cash and no agreement of how to provide a loan guarantee or appropriation that will continue train service to the end of the fiscal year," they said in a joint statement.

Gunn told Congress last week that rail service would be shut down by the middle of this week if Amtrak were unable to obtain a $200 million loan guarantee.

Amtrak's future is critical for Illinois, where more than 2,000 jobs are at stake. Without a resolution of the current fiscal crisis, a shutdown will adversely affect intercity rail service including three daily Illinois routes connecting Chicago to St. Louis, Carbondale and Quincy.

Illinois contributes about $10 million a year to Amtrak for service to 30 cities.

Brian McFadden, chief of staff to Springfield Mayor Karen Hasara, said Monday it's important the city have as many alternative transportation modes as possible.

"I think that's a sign of a prosperous city and a diversified city," he said. "... Sometimes it's just as simple as the more ways people can get to your city, the better off you are."

If passenger rail service did stop, it could hurt Springfield's tourism industry, since many visitors use the train to get here. And in the future, that tourism loss could be greater, McFadden said.

With the pending completion of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, tourism officials were hoping to capitalize on planned high-speed rail to promote a Chicago-to-Springfield travel package that would include visits to the major museums in Chicago with a getaway by train to visit attractions here.

Loss of Amtrak service also would eliminate an affordable means of travel for low-income families, McFadden said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, and others have called on the Bush administration to expedite a federally backed loan guarantee. In the short-term, he is working with Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to add $200 million to an emergency spending bill pending in Congress.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., an Amtrak critic, had no immediate comment, an aide said.

Earlier Monday, Sen. Robert Torrecelli, D-N.J., said Mineta "personally gave me his word that he will not allow the trains to stop." Torrecelli said he brought up the issue with Mineta when the transportation secretary joined President Bush during a
quick morning visit to New Jersey.

On Sunday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., criticized Amtrak for not making more cuts before going to Congress for a bailout. He said some Amtrak routes should be eliminated.

In Chicago, representatives of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and other passenger rail advocates called for federal intervention in the Amtrak financial crisis.

"Chicago is the hub of the national railroad system, but cities all along the rail network have rail stations that are hubs for job creation and commercial development," said chamber president Jerry Roper.

Joining in the call for federal support were the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the United Transportation Union.

Amtrak, created in 1971, has always been subsidized by the government, but Congress in 1997 said the agency must be self-sufficient by this year. Last year, it lost $1.1 billion.

Staff writer Jason Piscia and Mike Ramsey of Copley News Service in Chicago contributed to this report.