Solution for Amtrak called 'close'

WASHINGTON -- A solution to Amtrak's immediate financial woes "is very, very close," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Tuesday.

Mineta said the problem could be solved by today but offered no details on what actions would be taken to close a $200 million Amtrak budget gap. 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."

Mineta made the comments in response to a question at a luncheon sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Earlier in the day, Senate Democrats urged President Bush to include $205 million for Amtrak in a new spending bill and Mineta met with labor unions to discuss ways to keep the passenger rail system running.

"We are confident that the secretary is moving aggressively to avoid Amtrak's shutdown," said Edward Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department.

He said the meeting focused on resolving Amtrak's immediate cash crisis, not on the wide-ranging reforms Mineta proposed last week. Rail labor opposes many of those proposals.

"If we are going to help Amtrak, they must have resources and they must have them as quickly as possible," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Mineta discussed the administration's efforts to overhaul Amtrak with representatives of transportation unions. Last week he 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.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, agreed on the need for changes but rejected the Bush administration's plan.

'Reform for failure'

"Their reform package is a reform package for failure," Murray said.

Members of both houses were submitting letters urging the White House and congressional negotiators to include $200 million for Amtrak in the supplemental spending bill.

More than 30 senators signed a letter to President Bush. In the House, Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., chairman of the Transportation rails subcommittee, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Bob Clement of Tennessee, wrote their own letter.

On the Republican side, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said the federal government has an obligation to maintain a national railroad system. "We're all going to be in this together," she said.

But Hutchison, a supporter of Amtrak, also agreed that railroad operations need an overhaul. She said Amtrak's labor costs were "out of line with other workers in our country" and urged rail unions to be open to changes.

A day earlier, Mineta expressed confidence that Amtrak would not shut down for lack of operating funds.

Amtrak President David Gunn and board Chairman John Robert Smith said Mineta's pledge would delay today's threatened shutdown, the first in the railroad's 31-year history, but would not prevent it.