By Julia Heming, Daily Staff Reporter
If a provision of President Bush’s 2006 budget is passed by Congress, federal funding for Amtrak would go from $1.2 billion each year to zero, requiring the states to pick up the costs of Amtrak services — including those offered at the Ann Arbor train station.
The proposed changes could affect the travel plans of many students who use Amtrak to travel to stops from Chicago to East Lansing.
At a news conference in Chicago last week, Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the proposed funding cuts are a call for reform within the Amtrak system.
“If I wanted to kill Amtrak, I wouldn’t have to lift a finger,” he said. “The system as it stands now is dying and everyone knows it.”
Mineta also spoke about Bush’s Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act, a package to be re-introduced to Congress.
The act would require states to subsidize the maintenance of the rail system’s infrastructure, while Amtrak would run the trains under individual contracts with each state.
Mineta said Amtrak functions best where individual state governments make budgetary decisions for the rail service. Steve Kulm, director of public affairs for the Federal Railroad Administration, agreed with Mineta’s statement.
“(Under the new budget), the states will become responsible for where the service is needed, how it is operated and the funding for the service,” Kulm said.
“States are already in charge of transit systems, airport authorities and highways. Why should rail be different?” she added.
But Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said the governor hopes Congress will reject Bush’s proposal and continue to fund Amtrak. The state is coping with a $370 million revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year.
“Our hope is that Congress would also recognize the economic and quality-of-life value of interstate rail,” Boyd said.
The administration wants to decentralize control of Amtrak.
“We want it to become purely an operating company that would compete for contracts around the states to serve certain corridors. There is no national airline, no national bus company, nor should there be a national rail line,” Kulm said.
But in a statement to Amtrak employees, Amtrak President and CEO David Gunn called the fiscal plan irresponsible and surprising.
“(The proposal) isn’t accompanied by any kind of plan for how Amtrak could continue operations,” he said. “In a word, they have no plan for Amtrak other than bankruptcy.”
Mike Whims, chairman of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, also said the new measure, if approved, would put an end to the Amtrak rail system.
“The states generally haven’t got the funding within their own budgets to handle multiple separate (rail) systems that should be handled by one agency,” he said.
Amtrak has three train lines within Michigan, with 24 stations.
The station in Ann Arbor serves students traveling to Chicago and the East Lansing area, as well as several stops along the way. The Ann Arbor station served 108,498 passengers in fiscal year 2004 — more than any other station in the state.
LSA freshman Nora Lewandowski said she uses the Amtrak train frequently to get to and from Chicago, where her family and her boyfriend live.
Lewandowski said her Student Advantage Card entitles her to a 15-percent discount on Amtrak fares. She added that said her travel arrangements would suffer if Amtrak service were stopped.
“It would potentially mean that I would have to leave the (University) because I would have no way to see my family or my friends,” she said.
Still, Lewandowski said she has experienced delays while using the rail service.
“The first time I took the train it broke down and I had to wait for a chartered bus. It’s not really reliable timewise,” she said.
LSA freshman Robby Rutkoff said he usually drives or flies to his hometown, a suburb of Chicago, but that Amtrak is a good option because of its last-minute deals.
“The Amtrak train is probably the most convenient to get back to Chicago last-minute if you don’t have your own car on campus,” he said. Rutkoff said there have been instances when he has found a $25 fare for a train to Chicago just one day before departing.
Other students said they have found benefits in Amtrak’s train service.
LSA freshman Kendra Yum, from another suburb of Chicago, said it would be harder for her to get home without the Amtrak service.
“With Amtrak you can do other things during the transportation time. The long hours of driving is a lot of stress,” she said.
LSA sophomore Justin Gordon said the decrease in funding for Amtrak would ruin his primary method for travel. Also from the Chicago area, Gordon said that he uses the rail service to save time.
“I have very few complaints about the Amtrak services. There used to be timing issues but recently they’ve gotten their act together and the timing problems are gone,” he said.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the rail service has made reforms to improve its overall performance.
“We have decreased 5,000 employees over the last three years and eliminated underperforming routes,” he said.
Still, Mineta said reforms would be more sweeping under Bush’s Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act.
“Amtrak could then focus on its core mission — running the trains on time,” he said.