Bush administration rescinds transportation cuts

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(Host) Vermont officials learned Tuesday that President Bush will not propose cuts in overall federal transportation spending. But the state will have to contribute more money if it wants to maintain their passenger rail service.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Earlier this year, the Bush administration proposed a 15% reduction in federal transportation funds for individual states. In Vermont the cut would have amounted to roughly $20 million. The proposal was strongly opposed by many members of Congress and the administration subsequently dropped the plan.

On Tuesday, federal Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson told a field hearing of the U.S. Environment and Public Works Committee at the Statehouse that the outcry over the cut has convinced the administration to maintain current spending levels. Senator James Jeffords, who chairs the committee, was pleased to hear the administration’s plans:

(Jeffords) “Because we do need to take care of these huge demands that are being placed on the transportation system that weren’t there before. And we’ve got to do, and we’ve got to look at alternative ways including expansion of the rails for both freight as well as insuring that Amtrak prevails and stays with us.”

(Kinzel) However the future of Amtrak is very uncertain. The Bush administration is calling for a total review of the national passenger rail system. Deputy Secretary Jackson says states must be prepared to allocate more money if they want to save their train routes:

(Jackson) “And what we want to do is say that they’re going to have to help us figure out how to make this a financial viable thing and to make a contribution to that. So there will be a large look at all of these issues as part of the restructuring of Amtrak in the reauthorization of Amtrak next year.”

(Kinzel) Currently Vermont pays a two million dollar subsidy to Amtrak for the state’s two passenger trains. Vermont Senate Transportation Chairman Dick Mazza says Amtrak wants to boost this subsidy to as much as six million dollars by the year 2007. It’s a subsidy that Mazza says the state cannot afford:

(Mazza) “The thing that disturbs me more than anything else is the fact that the subsidy is going to increase on Vermont’s part with less service. We were told that service would probably be 25% less with a larger subsidy. Well in my math, if you’re going to ask for more money you’ve got to provide more service. So I think it’s time we sit back, evaluate the service we’re getting now, what benefits they’re providing.”

(Kinzel) A special study committee is examining the feasibility of having private companies operate the Amtrak passenger trains in Vermont in the future. The committee is expected to issue a report to the Legislature next winter.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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