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Friday December 15 6:47 PM ET
Amtrak Funding on 2001 Agenda
By LAURENCE ARNOLD, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Amtrak failed to win money for new high-speed train routes Friday but won pledges from Senate leaders of both parties to pursue the idea early in the new Congress.
``I'm looking forward to this being the first bipartisan effort we have next year,'' said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.
Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., had threatened to block a final package of spending measures that would allow the 106th Congress to finish its work Friday.
But they gave in after Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., agreed to co-sponsor the Amtrak funding bill next year and to seek hearings in the Senate Finance and Commerce committees.
``I can't guarantee that we'll have the votes, or that it won't be filibustered, but I think it's the right thing to do,'' Lott said. He described himself as ``an active supporter of a national rail passenger system.''
Lott cautioned that the bill may require some ``tweaks'' to make it better.
Biden said the agreement ``is good enough for me.''
The debate took place in the very week that Amtrak introduced its first high-speed train, Acela Express, between Boston and Washington.
Amtrak supporters had hoped the lame-duck Congress would approve legislation sponsored by Lautenberg to help Amtrak raise $10 billion to develop up to 11 additional high-speed train routes.
Rather than Amtrak paying interest, the federal government would provide tax credits to bondholders. The cost to the government would be $3.3 billion over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said Thursday, ``I think it's going to look like the ultimate in stupid policy for this Congress to adjourn doing nothing about high-speed rail.''
The Amtrak bill had 56 co-sponsors in the Senate and 171 in the House, and President Clinton supported it. It also had influential opponents, chiefly Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and John McCain, R-Ariz.
McCain, addressing Lautenberg on the Senate floor, said Congress should not authorize the $10 billion until it weighs the basic question of whether Amtrak should or should not be expected to run without federal assistance.
He noted that Amtrak is under orders from Congress to become self-sufficient by 2003 or risk being liquidated. Amtrak has consumed more than $22 billion in federal operating subsidies since its creation in 1971.
``We need to make a fundamental decision about what the government's role will be in a national railway system,'' McCain said.
Supporters of the legislation say high-speed trains will be necessary regardless of whether Amtrak survives as the nation's provider of long-distance rail service.
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