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Daytona Amtrak service in limbo; mayor distraught

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  • Daytona Amtrak service in limbo; mayor distraught

    DAYTONA BEACH -- Amtrak's plans to derail expansion projects nationwide -- including hopes for a new train station and restored passenger rail service here -- leave Mayor Bud Asher feeling ill.

    "I got sick," the mayor said Thursday. "It's such a needed thing. We were so looking forward to having passenger train service back in Daytona Beach and a nice project."

    Asher was eagerly awaiting restored passenger service after a 30-year absence and construction of a train station to help revive the city's low-income west side.

    Amtrak officials set aside expansion plans across the country and want a $1.2 billion subsidy for current operations, despite a deadline from Congress to be self-sufficient by December. More than $25 billion in federal subsidies have gone into Amtrak since it was formed in 1971.

    U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, and a state transportation official said hopes to get local plans back on track hinge on resolving Amtrak's financial problems.

    "Right now, it's sort of tied up in election-year politics," Mica said. "Hopefully, next year we can make changes that actually increase services, not only for Daytona Beach, but throughout the United States."

    Mica has proposed spinning Amtrak off into separate operations, with the federal government, state governments and private companies operating the different parts. He would separate services such as long-distance, commuter rail and the Auto Train.

    "It's in serious need of reform," Mica said. "Amtrak is responsible for all passenger, long-distance and commuter rail service and they're not able to do any of them well."

    An Amtrak spokesman responded by defending the company's operations and said plans to bring passenger rail service back to Daytona Beach have only been put on hold.

    "Our intention is to move forward at a future date, but it's going to be on hold for the coming year," said Howard Riefs, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago.

    An emergency $200 million operating loan in July from the Department of Transportation barred Amtrak from spending money on expansion plans for one year, he said.

    State officials plan to continue budgeting -- but not spending -- $64 million to restore the Jacksonville-to-Miami passenger rail route, said Nazih Haddad, state passenger rail development manager. About $2 million of that state money, along with more than $400,000 in city funds from a gas tax, would go to buy land here and build a new terminal.

    "Amtrak is sort of wobbling trying to continue services across the country and cannot spend monies on expansion of services this year," he said. "We're still committed to this project, but because of the uncertainly, we're going to hold off on spending these dollars."

    Haddad said it would probably take another year for Congress to resolve Amtrak's financial problems and get expansion plans going again.

    The city is holding off on buying property for the station "until Congress figures out what to do about Amtrak," City Manager Richard Quigley said. The proposed site is north of International Speedway Boulevard near Segrave Street on property owned by Florida East Coast Railway and Florida Power & Light Co.

    Asher said there's been no decision yet on whether the city's money would stay earmarked for the rail project or go toward other transportation needs.