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Will Tucson really lose Amtrak service?

When the federal Transportation Department reported in January that Amtrak lost $1.1 billion in 2001--the most in its 30-year history--the government's Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) concluded Amtrak had no chance of making a profit by 2003, the deadline Congress set five years ago. Amtrak President George Warrington warned Amtrak would be forced to suspend money-losing routes this October--including Tucson--if it does not receive $1.2 billion they've requested from Washington by September 30. The threat comes as Congress considers whether to break-up, privatize, or liquidate the federally funded rail service.

"If they do away with Amtrak, that equipment--the cars, the engines--is going to be gone for good," says Kenneth Jolly, president of Local Unit 63 of the National Association of Retired Veteran Railroad Employees. Jolly notes that when CONRAIL went bankrupt three decades ago, some tracks were torn up only to be replaced later at a greater expense.

The 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act gave Amtrak five years of guaranteed federal subsidies through 2002 in exchange for the rail system reaching "operational self-sufficiency." It hasn't happened and the White House has promised only $521 million next fiscal year, an amount Amtrak said in March leaves it no choice but to issue 180-day notices required by law before discontinuing train service.

A second letter this month reiterated the warning, adding, "In circumstances like this where train service rests on the availability of federal appropriations, the law does not require Amtrak to provide the customary 180-day cancellation notice, and indeed it would not be feasible to provide notice as to specific routes until Congress takes action."

The government-controlled rail service has never proposed the elimination of so many routes and some members of Congress, not eager for route cuts during an election year, have been rallying support for Amtrak.

The consequences of Amtrak dropping the entire Orlando to Los Angeles Sunset Limited--which serves Tucson twice a day, three days a week--remains debatable in the light of the current $6 million downtown train depot restoration and the future hopes of commuter train service between Tucson and Phoenix.

"It's really hard to say how it would impact future service between Tucson and Phoenix," says Tom Fisher, Intermodal Transportation Planner for the Pima Association of Governments (PAG). "I would say that once a route like that disappears, it's going to be more difficult to justify federal funds for rail service in the future."

Amtrak says more than 25,000 passengers either boarded or exited the train in Tucson last year, but for the most part the Old Pueblo is considered a "pass-through" city, not a "destination." Of the 41 train routes Amtrak runs, only two turned a profit in 2001 and the Sunset Limited alone lost $38.3 million. Amtrak is quick to point out that its ridership has been increasing. But such gains are a burden since Amtrak incurs about $2 in costs for every ticket dollar sold; so the more it sells, the more it loses.

"Rail can't compete for those long distances, but when you're talking about shorter distances--such as a hundred or 200 miles between cities--then rail becomes more competitive," notes PAG's Fisher.

Amtrak stopped running trains through Phoenix in 1996, opting to use buses to carry train passengers from Phoenix to the Tucson depot. But even earlier than that, talk of a Tucson-to-Phoenix commuter train was bounced around.

But if Amtrak leaves, the cost of those plans, estimated at over $3.7 billion, could skyrocket while the restored train depot sits trainless. Elimination of the long-distance route would increase the cost of operating commuter trains, which no longer could share facility costs or connecting passenger revenues.

"Certainly, we strongly hope that the Amtrak service will continue through Tucson," says Mayor Bob Walkup's chief of staff, Andrew Greenhill.

"It's rather disappointing because if you look at the investment in the Intermodal depot in Tucson, it is in anticipation of intercity rail service," says Fisher. "And Amtrak is somewhat of a weak symbol of that at this point. It doesn't really do what we want it to do."

Unlike past battles over Amtrak funding, this time it reaches into the realm of homeland security. The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) issued a letter to Washington officials in January stating: "The September 11 attacks on America instantly revealed the importance to our national security of a balanced, multi-modal, shock-resistant, and secure transportation system." USCM warned the nation should not depend too heavily on any single mode of transportation.

Closing down Amtrak will also have indirect expenses for the government. The boxcars trailing behind the passenger train carry U.S. mail and other time-sensitive shipments because Amtrak's schedule is so reliable. And putting Amtrak's 24,000 employees out of work would put a strain on unemployment and disability funds, according to Jolly, who also notes Amtrak "is an important part of the railroad retirement fund."

The Bush administration has yet to produce a plan on how to restructure Amtrak but appears to be leaning toward running regional trains and making states pick up more of the cost. Federal taxpayers have subsidized Amtrak with more than $25.3 billion over the years, with several billion more coming from the states--not an option for economically challenged states like Arizona. The National Association of Railroad Passengers agrees. Its web site notes: "Now that most states are experiencing serious budget problems, any recommendation that states bear more of the cost of providing rail is likely to mean major service reductions." Other proposals include whole service regions banding together to fund particular lines.

"If, in fact, the city was presented with a request from Amtrak for some kind of subsidy to keep the service in Tucson, then we may have to turn around and go back to the feds and say, 'We've been putting all this money into our intermodal center and now we'd like some money to keep Amtrak here,'" says Greenhill at the mayor's office. "But that would turn it around and turn it back into a federal program."

The anti-rail contingent has always suggested the passenger train is obsolete in the U.S. and few would mourn its extinction. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), long a leading Amtrak critic, has introduced legislation that would direct the Federal Railroad Administration to have Amtrak broken up into an operations unit, a maintenance unit and a rail reservation unit. Each would be turned over to the private sector within four years.

In contrast to McCain, a bill introduced by Senator Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) would provide $1.2 billion in capital funding for Amtrak and make Amtrak reinvest money from its profitable Northeast corridor service between Washington and Boston to help meet that line's capital expenses.

"It's the same with any public transit service," says Fisher. "You have strong routes and you have weak routes, and usually the strong routes end up subsidizing the weak routes."

Amtrak supporters point out that more than $14 billion in federal funds is going to support air travel this year and more than $24 billion is earmarked to support car travel in the Federal Highway Administration budget while barely a half-billion is funding Amtrak. Moreover, the federal government offers 80 percent matches to encourage states to focus their investments on highways and aviation. Federal matches to support state investments for intercity passenger rail are virtually non-existent.

Meanwhile, siding with the staunchest of Washington's Amtrak critics, the conservative Cato Institute put forth its own plan in February, recommending: "It is in the public interest to use existing bankruptcy laws to liquidate Amtrak."

The reaction to the call for liquidation by private and government officials was a bipartisan group of 21 U.S. senators pledging to block any attempt to liquidate Amtrak, reminding the White House that "Amtrak cannot be liquidated without the Senate's approval, and we will oppose any effort to do so."

The mayors' group has rallied an "Amtrak Mayors Network" to send letters to legislatures. Tucson's Walkup did so in a letter dated March 25, stating: "What a shame it would be for Tucson to complete our depot restoration project, joining over 100 intermodal facilities in cities across the nation, only to face the elimination of Amtrak service--the long-distance passenger rail service that links vital community centers to each other."

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