February 7, 2005

CHICAGO (Feb. 7)—An angry Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) denounced the administration’s proposal to end Amtrak’s annual federal subsidy, saying it would be “just nuts” to close down the nation’s only passenger rail service at a time when highways are gridlocked and motor-fuel prices continue to skyrocket.

“Can you think of a worse idea than eliminating the only passenger rail service in America?”—Durbin asked reporters gathered at a news conference in the Great Hall of Chicago Union Station.

At the press conference, where UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo represented rail labor, Durbin said the impact of an Amtrak shutdown would be particularly severe in Illinois, where the federally owned company has 2,000 employees. In addition, of the 3 million passengers who board or leave Amtrak trains in Illinois each year, some 2 million generate serious revenue and jobs when they patronize local retailers while changing trains at Chicago Union Station.

“At a time when our highways are overcrowded, gas prices are hitting record highs, and we desperately need to reduce our over-reliance on foreign oil, what does the Bush administration want to do?”—Durbin said in a statement released by his office. “Eliminate federal funding for America’s only passenger rail system? That’s just nuts.”

Szabo said the administration was especially out of touch when it claimed that the costs of Amtrak’s interstate trains should be paid by consortiums of states that would pool their funds to subsidize operations now funded by Amtrak’s federal subsidy.

“We already have a consortium of states,” Szabo said. “It’s called the federal government.”

Durbin, who holds the number-two rank among Senate Democrats, was seconded by the freshman junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Obama said the administration’s attempt to “zero out” Amtrak reflected the same attitude of denial seen in its proposals to privatize Social Security and cut veterans’ benefits.

“…the president has simply ignored the realities we’re facing,” Obama said. “Instead, we’ve been presented with a budget where the costs fall on the back of those Illinois families who need our help the most—a budget that more than doubles the co-payment charged to many veterans and cuts funding for services like Amtrak that are vital to people across the state.”

The suddenness and severity of the two senators’ reactions, echoed by many other Senate and House members, seemed to catch House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Yorkville) off balance. The Speaker, who historically has supported bigger Amtrak budgets than those proposed by the Bush White House, moved quickly to distance himself from the administration position, reassuring Amtrak supporters that Congress may restore much of the money that Bush’s advisors want to eliminate.

“This is just a starting point for the Congress,” said Hastert spokesman Brad Hahn. “There’s a long road ahead. Things can and do change, and it’s certainly too early to be calling press conferences.”

“I certainly hope the Speaker’s office is right,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo following the press conference. “We look forward to working with the Illinois delegation to make sure that when the 2006 budget is passed, Amtrak’s current funding level of $1.2 billion not only is restored, but increased. Anything less than $1.8 will push Amtrak that much closer to the day of reckoning.

“This country keeps repeating the mistake of treating passenger-rail service as a money-losing business while treating highways and airports as federally sponsored transportation programs that receive lavish subsidies,” Szabo said. “That double standard has to end.”