The U.S. Dept. of Transportation's inspector general has issued a warning about the consequences of Amtrak's continued deferring of needed improvements to bridges and other infrastructure. In a report released to the public Nov. 22, IG Kenneth Mead says, "Continued deferral brings Amtrak closer to a major point of failure on the system but no one knows where or when such a failure will occur."
Mead says Amtrak's board should step in to rectify the problem. He notes that the board has directed that repairs to the Thames River bridge in Connecticut be moved "to the top of the list of capital spending projects and says directors should "minimize further deferral of critical capital investment."
The report says that "programming millions of scarce capital dollars for fixing long-distance sleeper cars when bridges that Amtrak owns are beyond their functional and economic lives and must be refurbished or replaced is unacceptable."
The IG report says that despite increased ridership, Amtrak's 2003 revenue declined 6.8%, to $2.1 billion and its operating loss widened by $144 million, to $1.3 billion. Part of the reason for the dip in revenue was promotional fares and fare cuts, the report says.
Amtrak President David Gunn generally agreed with the IG's assessment of the dangers of deferred capital spending. "We are playing Russian roulette," Gunn said in an Oct. 4 letter to Mead. Gunn added, "Management has identified the specific projects and the schedules necessary to address the most serious problems."
But Gunn called "troublesome" Mead's recommendation that Amtrak should prepare a budget in line with an expected federal appropriation of $1.2 billion. That figure, in fact, is the amount Congress approved for Amtrak in the 2005 omnibus appropriations bill lawmakers passed on Nov. 20.
Gunn said the railroad is working on a "contingency plan" to cope with a $1.2-billion budget. But in his letter to Mead he cautioned, "You should be aware that it will not be possible to live within a $1.2-billion appropriation without deferring essential capital investment once again."