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Lawmakers hold out hope for boost in Amtrak funds

Proposed spending bill being rewritten, Blumenauer says

Amtrak services would be thrown off the tracks entirely if the national passenger railroad had to operate under the truncated budget approved July 11 by a House subcommittee.

But Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., called the spending bill, which came out of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Treasury, 'dead on arrival.'

'It is being rewritten,' he said.

According to Blumenauer and a spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., there could be enough bipartisan support in both houses of Congress to fund the railroad at the $1.8 billion level that Amtrak says it needs to maintain existing services.

Blumenauer said there's even an 'excellent chance' that Amtrak could get more than $1.8 billion.

That would be good news for Portland, whose Union Station is the 18th-busiest Amtrak station in the country. In fiscal 2002, 467,000 people got on and off Amtrak trains here, Amtrak spokeswoman Sarah Swain said.

The two Amtrak long-distance trains with the greatest number of riders, the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder, both serve Portland.

The passenger count is further bolstered by the popularity of the Amtrak Cascades service, which runs from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia, and gets funding support from the states of Oregon and Washington. About 584,000 people rode the Cascades line last year, about 95,000 of them between Eugene and Portland.

On the home front, continued state funding for two of the three Oregon segments of the Cascades train remains in question. Oregon pays Amtrak to run two Cascades trains, at a cost of about $5 million a year. The money is in Gov. Ted Kulongoski's proposed budget, but not in the state Republicans' proposed spending bill.

'We're part of the big general fund budget impasse,' said Claudia Howells, manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation rail program. 'The problem is, there's not a lot of fiddling with the amount that you can do. You either pay Amtrak or you don't. You either pay for one train or pay for two trains.'

Amtrak supporters went on alert when the federal spending bill emerged from the subcommittee chaired by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla. It set aside $580 million for Amtrak in fiscal 2004 (which begins Oct. 1) Ñ less than the $900 million proposed by the Bush administration Ñ and specified that $300 million of the total had to be spent on the Northeast corridor.

Amtrak officials said that's not enough to keep even the East Coast lines operating and cover the railroad's annual $261 million payment on its debt.

But Istook's bill drew praise from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which criticized Amtrak for seeking 'record-breaking subsidies' despite the government's security needs and $455 billion budget deficit.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Ñ of which Wyden is a member Ñ in late June approved an authorization of $2 billion annually for Amtrak for six years, said Wyden press secretary Carol Guthrie. In a separate action, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved a three-year Amtrak authorization at $2 billion annually.

Blumenauer said Amtrak funding probably won't be dealt with until Congress returns in September from its August break. 'It will probably be one of the very last bills now,' he predicted.

The bill out of Istook's committee gave short shrift to Amtrak, but it included $34.1 billion for highways, $4.8 billion more than the president proposed.

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