January 17, 2003

WASHINGTON (Jan. 17)–Rallying behind Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the U.S. Senate yesterday restored $440 million in funding it had previously withheld from Amtrak, bringing the carrier’s budget appropriation for Fiscal Year 2003 back up to the $1.2 billion that Amtrak CEO David Gunn insisted was the bare minimum needed to keep the system open.

“There is no doubt that Dick Durbin’s leadership was responsible for this victory,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Again and again he has come through on the side of passenger railroad service, but never was his leadership more critical than it was in yesterday’s Amtrak vote. Every UTU member owes him a debt of gratitude.”

The Amtrak budget rescue came as a surprise to many. Last year the Senate approved Gunn’s request for $1.2 billion, but when the Senate reconvened this year with a Republican majority it reversed itself and cut Amtrak’s appropriation back to $760 million. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced an amendment restoring the missing $440 million, but few expected it to succeed until Durbin signed on as a co-sponsor and then took the floor to argue for passage of the full $1.2 billion sought by Gunn.

Because the victory came on a voice vote, there was no indication as to whether Illinois’ Republican junior senator, Peter Fitzgerald, responded to letters and phone calls from Illinois UTU members urging him to support the full $1.2-billion appropriation. But Szabo said UTU members soon will be asked to reach out to members of the Illinois delegation in the House of Representatives, where the next and final battle for Amtrak funding will be fought.

“While yesterday’s victory in the Senate is a major step forward for Amtrak, our members should have no illusions about what lies ahead,” Szabo said. “The fact is, the Republican majority in the House is much bigger than the Republican majority in the Senate, and that majority includes a number of powerful members who simply don’t ‘get it’ about the importance of a strong passenger-train system in America.

“So we are urging UTU members and their families to stand by for another call to action soon. Not today. Not tomorrow. But very soon we will need phone calls, e-mails and faxes to Speaker Hastert and other important members of the Illinois delegation in the House.

“In the meantime,” Szabo said, “I strongly urge all of our members to call up Dick Durbin and say ‘Thank you’ for the tremendous job he just did in bringing the Senate around to full funding for Amtrak. Dick Durbin has never failed the people who ride this nation’s trains–or the people who run them. Let’s make it clear how much we appreciate what he did.”