November 13, 2003

WASHINGTON (Nov. 13)—Last night’s decision by a House-Senate Conference Committee to approve a 2004 Amtrak budget totaling more than $1.3 billion owes much of its success to the senior senator from Illinois, Richard J. Durbin.

The Springfield Democrat, now serving his second term, sits on the powerful Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee.

That means he was part of the Senate team that spent much of last night deliberating with their counterparts in the House of Representatives over how much operating and capital assistance Amtrak should receive in the Fiscal Year 2004 budget.

The problem was to reconcile two sharply different proposals for how much Amtrak should receive.

Amtrak President and CEO David Gunn began telling Congress and the White House last spring the company needed an FY 2004 appropriation of $1.812 billion in order to keep all its trains and routes operating, repair wreck-damaged rolling stock and start catching up on deferred track maintenance in the Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak owns.

The Senate approved a sum close to that—$1.3 billion.

But the White House recommended only $900 million, and the House of Representatives approved that same figure in its appropriation.

The differing totals left the House and Senate more than $400 million apart. Amtrak’s future hung in the balance as a Conference Committee composed of members from both chambers tried to negotiate a compromise.

That’s when Sen. Durbin got busy. According to an aide, Durbin worked closely with one of his Democratic colleagues on the Subcommittee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, to persuade the Republican members to approve a total closer to the Senate’s.

Durbin also is reported to have talked to one of his Republican colleagues, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, in an effort to win Republican approval for what Durbin’s office called “a good Amtrak number.”

The efforts of Durbin and other pro-Amtrak members on the Senate side apparently prevailed when the House-Senate Conference Committee announced it had compromised on a number very close to the Senate’s original $1.3 billion. Amtrak will get an appropriation of $1.2 billion plus postponement of a $100-million loan repayment owed to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We are extremely grateful to Sen. Durbin for his efforts last night,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “But we are not surprised. Dick Durbin is a railroad man from a railroad family and has always understood the importance of passenger-rail transportation even when many of his colleagues did not. He’s also been a staunch friend of organized labor throughout his career.”

Szabo said Amtrak officials have told him the $1.3 billion compromise is not expected to encounter resistance when brought back to the House and Senate floors for a vote.

He also said it appears to mean that all Amtrak trains currently in the timetable will keep running and all routes currently operated will stay open.

“This is not a budget that permits much expansion of the system, but it allows Dave Gunn to keep running what is there and to keep rebuilding wrecked cars and locomotives to assure more passenger capacity and more reliable train operations,” Szabo said.

“That’s a good base on which to build our continuing campaign for a bigger passenger rail system in America and a steady and reliable source of federal funding to pay for a nationwide buildup of passenger-rail infrastructure.”