Northeast business groups get behind Amtrak

Amtrak has a new booster club.

More than 50 chambers of commerce and other business groups on the East Coast joined together Wednesday, May 5 to lobby Congress to fully fund the railroad's $1.8 billion budget request.

The Bush administration has sent Congress a $900 million figure for Amtrak– an amount Amtrak President David Gunn says would eventually force a shutdown of the system. The railroad urgently needs capital investments, he says, warning that "Time is running out" for some of its aging infrastructure.

The newly formed Amtrak Business Coalition sent a letter Wednesday to congressional appropriations leaders urging them to meet Amtrak's full funding request for fiscal year 2005.

The group announced its efforts at a boarding gate in Union Station as passengers alighted from trains in the background. Union Station was the third busiest station in the Amtrak system last year, behind Penn Station in New York and 30th St. Station in Philadelphia.

John D. Porcari, a member of the transportation committee of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and a former Maryland transportation secretary, calls Amtrak the "lifeblood" of the northeast's economy. He says the railroad serves more than six million riders and employs nearly 4,000 people in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.

"If Amtrak were not to run tomorrow morning, imagine the incredible congestion we would experience throughout the northeast corridor," says Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD. "You'd have absolute gridlock."

Gunn, who took over Amtrak in May 2002, says the rail service has been neglected and "desperately" needs cash. Tracks, rail ties, and power cables need replacing or upgrading. At one point, Gunn says, a 12,000-volt cable installed in the 1930s was powering the rail system's entire northeast corridor.

There are also three bridges in Connecticut that need repair, although they're not in danger of collapse, Gunn says.

[Due to a proofing error, the authorship of this piece was miscredited in our print edition; as mentioned above, it was written by the Associated Press.]