Two press conferences in Sacramento on March 31

A RailPAC Special Report — Two Press Reports; one with DOT Secretary Mineta, and the other with local officials. 

By Russ Jackson, RailPAC, who was the only rail advocate allowed into the press conference. A followup news conference was held outside the press room, and that is included below.

USDOT Secretary Norman Mineta spoke to the press Thursday morning in the press room of the State Capitol. (See photo). In his statement he reiterated the positions he has been taking regarding Amtrak, that “the Administration’s reform plan could lead to noticeable improvements in inter-city passenger service.” He will again submit to the Congress the 2003 “Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act.” Its provisions call for “healthy competition” for better rail service. As part of this concept he praised California’s “ambitious passenger rail plans,” saying he is proud of his home state for its progress in rail transportation planning.

Amtrak’s primary mission, he said, is to run trains, not be in the real estate business or other non-passenger related businesses such as track repair and a reservation system, none of which apply to airlines in their businesses. He called for his plan to be adopted which would allow Amtrak to focus on its passenger delivery business with the states sharing the capital costs 50-50. He specifically mentioned Chicago Union Station ownership as not necessary, in that Metra which operates most of the trains out of there does not have local control and is held hostage to Amtrak. “Having come from local government, I feel states and localities know how to handle this better with no dictation from Washington.”

He briefly mentioned the high speed rail development program in California, but when asked whether his 50-50% federal-state share proposal would mean the Feds would pick up 50% of the multi-billion dollar CAHSRA program, he backed off and said he would have to look into that, but if it qualified as an “intercity” rail program it might. Because his plan lets states choose who runs the trains it gives incentives to Amtrak to compete for these contracts. It could lead to greater efficiencies, and in the end lower the need for Amtrak subsidies.

He said the plan calls for upgrading the Northeast Corridor, and when that is done using Federal dollars, then the operating contract would be turned over to the affected states. He said, “If I were outside the NEC I’d see dollars going to it instead of my state,” and would not be happy about it. President Bush and he are in accord “as supporting intercity rail.” We “will take back the assets of the NEC, and make the repairs.” When asked how much that would cost, he estimated $1.2 to 1.8 billion.

He concluded with the comment he has used everywhere in supporting the Administration plan, that he doesn’t want to kill Amtrak. Mr. Mineta emphasized that if he wanted Amtrak to die he would do nothing and it would do so of its own accord, where the Administration’s plan is “key to revitalizing” passenger rail travel.

At the end of Secretary Mineta’s meeting the press was invited to step into the hall for another press conference by California Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) who on this same day introduced a joint resolution calling on Congress to preserve and improve Amtrak. Assemblyman Jones said, “De-funding Amtrak is directly at odds with our interests here in Sacramento. As a growing region with congested freeways we need more Federal support for rail transit so we can encourage more travelers to get out of their cars and onto public transport like Amtrak and Regional Transit.” The introduced measure would “memorialize the Congress to provide adequate operating and capital funding for Amtrak at specified levels.” This resolution has the support of many groups around the state, including the Capitol Corridor JPB, the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee, the Coast Rail Coordinating Committee and the LOSSAN Corridor Committee. It is co-sponsored by Assemblyman Leslie (R-Tahoe City), with support by several other bi-partisan legislators including Senators Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), Kehoe (D-San Diego) and Ducheny (D-San Diego).

Capitol Corridor Managing Director Eugene Skoropowski (seen talking to the press in the photo) (that’s RailPAC director Marcia Johnston in the background) was interviewed in the hallway news conference also, making the points he has stressed that “without Amtrak would we be able to operate the Capitol Corridor and other state trains? Yes and No;” the state would “need a new operator.” He said that the freight railroads would be very reluctant to ok anyone other than Amtrak, as a “new operator could present probems in the insurance liability area, for one.” With Amtrak, that organization holds the insurance policy but a new operator would have to negotiate a new agreement, the state’s policy premium could be around $8 million a year, and no insurance company has indicated it would be interested. Mr. Skoropowski was asked about the future of Amtrak funding, repeating his comments he has said elsewhere, “The administration does seem to recognize that they must have a federal-state partnership with the states for intercity passenger rail capital investment, albeit on a 50-50 basis rather than the 80-20% for roads. There seems to be no new funding for this program, however, and the implication is that federal funds used to support the current national network of passenger rail run by Amtrak would be taken away from that function and the money made available to states on a matching basis.” Mr. Skropowski then told the press, “Since the entire long distance passenger rail system costs about $300 million in subsidy, there is not much of a ‘savings’ likely to come cutting off all those services.” The $2 billion of ticket sales yearly makes up the balance of the budget. Of the remaining $900 million of the total $1.2 billion Amtrak federal allocation, about half of that amount is for capital infrastructure maintenance/renewals along the Northeast Corridor.

This writer’s comments: Nothing really new came out of this day’s news conference. We’ve got a long way to go this summer before the Amtrak funding situation is resolved, and in my opinion the status quo will probably exist for another year. But, the fundamental problem of Amtrak’s longevity is not easily solvable either with throwing money at it or just the reforms proposed however desirable some are. It boils down to this: does the American public want rail travel enough to stand up and say so and then buy tickets? They are doing that in many ways, and we must be vigilant and helpful. Some say the long distance (national system) trains are in jeopardy, but most rightly believe that Amtrak cannot thrive without them. I personally do not believe the states need to pay for those trains, only for stations and ameneties along the way. It was another day in the continuing saga of Amtrak.

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