June 21, 2002
CHICAGO (June 21)–Following Amtrak CEO David Gunn’s warning that he will soon have to shut the nation’s passenger rail system down for lack of funds, the UTU’s Illinois Legislative Board is urging all members to contact House Speaker Dennis Hastert and ask that Congress approve an immediate supplemental appropriation.
“This is not about demanding a bigger Amtrak appropriation for the new fiscal year starting October 1,” said Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “This about now. Dave Gunn told the Senate Transportation Appropriations Sub-committee that if a $200-million loan is not approved in the next week, he will have to shut the whole system down sometime in early July. Dave Gunn has a reputation as a straight shooter who does not threaten or cajole legislators. He tells them the truth even if it make them uncomfortable. I think he’s telling it like it is. This is the greatest crisis in Amtrak’s 31-year history.”
Szabo said it is essential that all members contact the office of U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Yorkville) and demand immediate congressional legislation to get Amtrak the $200 million it needs.
The money could come in the form of a supplemental appropriation, or it could come in the form of a federally guaranteed loan that would come from a private lender, Szabo said.
“What’s important is not the mechanism Congress chooses, but the speed with which it acts,” Szabo said. “Time is of the essence. Gunn said he will have to have the problem resolved by the middle of next week or Amtrak will start planning a July shutdown. He said Amtrak is at the point of no return. I believe him.”
Szabo said that in view of the short deadline, members should phone or e-mail Speaker Hastert immediately. The Speaker’s Washington phone number is (202) 225-2967. His district office in Batavia can be reached at (630) 406-1114. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When the phone is picked up, tell the person who answers it that you are a UTU member and railroad employee and that you want the Speaker to arrange immediate supplemental funding to avert an Amtrak shutdown,” Szabo said. “You need not go into detail. The person who answers the phone will be handling many other callers and may switch you to another staffer. Regardless of who you end up speaking to, emphasize the words ‘immediate supplemental funding to avert an Amtrak shutdown.’ They will know what you mean.”
Szabo also urged members to call the congressman representing their district with the same message. The UTU’s national Web page has a link to help viewers reach their congressional office.
“Some of the links will only get you into a congressman’s e-mail, but others list their phone numbers,” Szabo said. “Use whatever you can get, but make the message clear: ‘Immediate supplemental funding to avert an Amtrak shutdown.'”
Szabo said reaching members of Congress is key because “the House is where the problem is when it comes to Amtrak.
“The Senate is not going to be troublesome,” Szabo said. “There are 100 senators, and rail advocates can usually count on a 52-vote majority. But the House has 435 members, and putting together a pro-Amtrak majority there is a problem. We haven’t much time to make these calls, so put your message where it counts.”
Szabo said there is no need for members to call Senator Richard J. Durbin, since he has been in the forefront of the fight for passenger trains throughout his career and demonstrated it again Thursday when he made several impassioned statements during a hearing by the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee into the Amtrak funding crisis.
Durbin took particularly severe exception to the Bush administration’s plan for Amtrak released earlier in the day by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. The plan called for less federal invesment in Amtrak and more funding from the states.
“I respect Norman Mineta, and I have ever since I served with him in the House,” Durbin said, “but I am saddened by the decision he made today. It would virtually abandon passenger railroad service. Can you imagine what our highway system would look like if we withdrew federal funding and left it to the states? What airline could step forward and fund all of the airports and all of the air-traffic control system with its own money? None of them could succeed without federal funding.”
Durbin, said the September 11 attacks apparently failed to teach the administration a lesson about how a strong train system can assure transportation security.
“On September 11 I was stranded in Chicago and could not get a flight back to my home in Springfield,” he said. “I went to Union Station and got on an Amtrak train and it was packed with people just like me. I wonder whether that resource will be there the next time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”