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Amtrak Survival Still Uncertain

April 18, 2002
By: Jon Ariztimuno
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 1104

JEFFERSON CITY - Funding to continue twice daily Amtrak service between St. Louis and Kansas City is still up in the air as the Senate prepares to take up the state's unbalanced budget for a final reading next week.

Gov. Bob Holden had proposed that $6 million for Amtrak funding be stripped from the state's regular budget and made one of the items to be paid for by the State Emergency Reserve Fund that require a two thirds vote by state lawmakers.

The House rejected use of the "Rainy Day Fund", creating an unbalanced budget, and restored funds for Amtrak into the normal operating budget.

Amtrak representatives had warned that the service would be stopped by July 1 if the state didn't maintain its $6 million assistance to the company.

Despite the House decision to restore Amtrak's budget to General Revenue, Amtrak supporters in the legislature expressed concerns.

"Nothing is out of the woods yet" said the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that deals with transportation, Rep. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County.

One of the legislature's major Amtrak boosters -- Rep. John Griesheimer, R-Washington -- said he was "cautiously optimistic" about Amtrak's chances for funding.

But Griesheimer warned that even if the Senate goes along with the House decision, the future of Amtrak still hangs in the balance.

"Even if we passed the legislation and keep the money on the bill, the governor still has the authority to do a line item veto and take the money out of it", he said.

The governor of Missouri has a constitutional obligation to sign a balanced budget.

Senate Appropriations Committee member Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City, said the committee has decided to fund Amtrak.

"Since the House has not passed the Rainy Day Fund (...) we have to start finding the money to save Amtrak someplace else," he said.

The legislature needs for Amtrak to be a preference, Wiggins said.

"We have to keep it going as public transportation for people who need it [...] I always shepherded the appropriation and I would try to do it this year," he said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee this week went through the transportation budget. Wiggins said he sees good chances for the railroad passenger service to live.

"There are sufficient number of senators who share my views and we have to keep Amtrak in some form moving in Missouri," he said.

But Wiggins gave his concerns about Amtrak a national angle. Amtrak in February threatened to end all long-distance train services this year if Congress didn't double its annual subsidy to $1.2 billion.

"What has to occur is coming to closure on what this system is and what this country is willing to pay for," Amtrak President George Warrington said.

Under the current system, there is no way Amtrak can operate profitably, he said.

If Amtrak doesn't get funded and shuts down, it would be a "national tragedy", said Sen. Wiggins

"I personally think it would be extremely foolish for the Federal government to let Amtrak go," he said. "I don't know any country of the Western world that does not subsidize public transportation."

Wiggins wondered about funding the service between Kansas City and Saint Louis when it is a "very minor part of Amtrak nationwide."

Amtrak operates a 22,000-mile inter-city passenger rail system, reaching more than 500 communities in 46 states.

According to Wiggins, funding Amtrak in the future will mean to "tie ourselves to the future of Amtrak nationally."

But Amtrak in Missouri is a different issue than the situation of the company nationwide, said Ray Lang, director of government affairs for Amtrak.

"Our service in Missouri is operated under contract with the Missouri Department of Transportation. Our national funding situation is separated from what the state of Missouri does," Lang said.

Lang assured that the money appropriated for Amtrak in the House, $6 million, will be enough to keep the service going.

"We fully support the actions of the House Appropriations Committee and are pleased that they have taken such a strong step to support passenger service in the state of Missouri," said Lang.

Lang said he was hopeful that their colleagues in the Senate will do the same thing.