His organization under fire, Michael Dukakis, acting chairman of Amtrak, called for massive federal investment in the rail service during a speech at UC Berkeley Friday afternoon.
The day before his speech, the Amtrak Reform Council, a federal oversight commission formed in 1997, issued a report calling on Congress to break Amtrak into three new agencies and privatize some its rail service.
A week earlier, Amtrak, which accumulated $1.1 billion in losses last year, said it would cut long-distance service in October, including the Oakland-Chicago Zephyr line, unless it received $1.2 billion in federal funding for the 2003 budget year. President Bush has proposed $521 million for the rail service.
In 1997, Congress imposed a December 2002 deadline for Amtrak, a chronic money-loser, to become a profitable entity, a deadline that Amtrak officials admit they won’t meet.
But Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate, said Amtrak cannot turn a profit unless Congress invests adequate funds in trains and other infrastructure.
“There’s no way this system can be operationally profitable,” he said, “unless we commit a modest, but consistent amount of capital development to the system.”
Dukakis said Congress needs to spend 5 percent of the $45 billion it spends annually on highway and airport infrastructure on rail.
“I hope nobody will tell us that we don’t have any money,” he added, arguing that Congress would do better to spend money on Amtrak than on tax cuts.
But Deirdre O’Sullivan, public affairs specialist for the Amtrak Reform Council, says that more money is not the answer, noting that the rail service has continued to lose money, even though Congress has poured billions into Amtrak since 1997.
O’Sullivan said partial privatization is the answer. “Private companies provide, historically, better service for less money than the government can,” she said.
But Dukakis raised doubts about the Reform Council recommendation during his Friday speech, pointing to the recent failures of privatized rail service in England.
Elizabeth O’Donoghue, spokesperson for Amtrak West in Oakland, called the privatization plan unrealistic, noting that private companies would probably be unwilling to take on the heavy infrastructure costs associated with rail service.
Dukakis also objected to a council recommendation that the federal government strip Amtrak of control over the “northeast corridor” that runs from Boston to Washington D.C., arguing that it represents Amtrak’s most successful route.
The council’s report says that proper maintenance of the corridor, estimated at a cost of $800 million to $1 billion per year, is too expensive for the financially-strapped Amtrak, which spent only $71 million on corridor maintenance over the last three years.
O’Donoghue attributed the meager spending to inadequate funding from Congress.