WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, chairman of the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee, scolded the Bush Administration Thursday for its “stunning” proposal to zero out Amtrak’s operating subsidy and said he expects to have a bipartisan Amtrak remedy ready to go to the Senate floor this summer.
Lott’s statements came during the Subcommittee’s hearing on the future of Amtrak during which Senators heard from the Administration’s representative to the Amtrak board, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, and from Amtrak’s President and CEO.
Lott argued that the federal government should have the principal lead in supporting a national passenger rail system because the issue is interstate commerce and is vital to the national economy. “I care a whole lot about transportation,” Lott said. “If we don’t have well-funded proposals for our highways, rails, airports and ports and harbors, we’re not going to be able to grow the economy. I don’t think the Administration is stepping up adequately to that responsibility.”
By zeroing out Amtrak’s funding, Lott said Administration officials were “kicking this ball to the states” because they can’t figure out what to do. “I’m stunned that such a proposal would be sent up by this Administration,” Lott said. “I want to work with the Administration, but I need you genuinely involved and your help to get this done. We need a little more innovative thinking on the part of the Administration than what we’ve already seen.”
“Do we want a national rail passenger system?” Lott challenged Administration and Amtrak officials. “If so, how do we pay for it? Through a reauthorization with innovative ideas and new options? By identifying annual appropriations?”
Lott even suggested a different mechanism, a national transportation bond authority capability as a tool for providing a funding stream for Amtrak. “If we’re going to have a national system, we’ve got to figure out a way to pay for it,” he said.