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  • Full Funding Needed

    JACKSON (AP) -- Mississippi's three Amtrak routes are as likely to survive a tight federal budget as other, busier routes, says the chairman of the national passenger rail system.

    "The trains in Mississippi are no more threatened than the trains in New York and Boston," John Robert Smith said Tuesday during a news conference in Jackson.

    Smith, the mayor of Meridian since 1993 and member of Amtrak's board since 1998, said the government-subsidized rail system is seeking $1.2 billion from Congress for the federal budget year that starts Oct. 1.

    That's significantly higher than the $521 million Smith said the Bush administration recommends for Amtrak, but Smith says the rail system needs all the money it is requesting.

    "Certainly, if we do not receive the $1.2 billion from Congress, then every line in the country is threatened," he said.

    Smith this summer reached an agreement with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta for the federal government to give Amtrak $200 million to keep the system running through Sept. 30, the end of this budget year.

    "Short of adequate federal support in the coming year, I think you'll see us head to Capitol Hill with keys and say, 'We are going to run it right. We're going to run a national system or we won't be able to run it at all,'" Smith said.

    Earlier this month, Jeff Shane, associate deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, told Southern legislators meeting in New Orleans that a new intercity passenger service should be established and Amtrak might have to compete with private operators to run it.

    The Amtrak routes through Mississippi are the City of New Orleans, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans; the Crescent, which runs from New York to New Orleans; and the Sunset Limited, which runs from Orlando, Fla., to Los Angeles.

    Smith said the United States spends less than 2 percent of its transportation budget on passenger rail, compared to about 15-20 percent spent in Europe.

    "We literally spend more collecting the road kill off the nation's highways than we spend on the entire passenger rail system of this country in one year," Smith said.

    Members of Congress will work on the 2003 federal budget when they return to Washington from their August recess.

    Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., supports giving Amtrak enough money to make the national rail system viable, said spokesman Lee Youngblood.

    Youngblood said he didn't know whether Lott wants the rail system to get the full $1.2 billion it has requested.