Through all the funding problems that Amtrak has had in recent years, it was reassuring that the person running the system, David Gunn, is considered by Michael Dukakis to be ''the best rail CEO in the country." Dukakis was on the board that hired Gunn three years ago. Yesterday a board dominated by President Bush's appointees fired Gunn, raising new doubts about the Bush administration's commitment to passenger rail service.
Gunn's supporters in Congress, including Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, rallied to his defense. Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, called the decision ''wrong, ill-advised, and further proof that the Bush administration doesn't want Amtrak to succeed."
In the past year Amtrak served a record number of passengers, 25.5 million, with a much reduced payroll. Admittedly, the system runs in the red each year and has a backlog of needed infrastructure improvements. But those problems could be solved if Congress decided to underpin its operations with a guaranteed revenue source, such as the gasoline tax that funds interstate highways.
The dismissal of Gunn, who has been in the leadership of transit systems from Washington to Boston to Toronto, follows closely upon another wrongheaded move by the board in September, approving a resolution authorizing the splitting off of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. The Bush administration has long envisioned turning the corridor over to a federal-state consortium. The corridor accounts for the greatest number of Amtrak passengers and most of its revenues. Gunn supporters believe that the administration thinks moving ahead with the dismantling of Amtrak will be easier without Gunn as Amtrak's president.
The strongest critics of this proposal are officials in the Northeastern states, which have trouble enough subsidizing and managing their commuter rail systems and have no desire to take on Amtrak's need for improved track, bridges, and electrical equipment. In Congress, the fear is that splitting off the Northeast Corridor would be followed by attempts to sell off or drop Amtrak's long-distance lines. While these might be perennial money-losers, they bring service to much of the country and have considerable support in Congress.
Just last week the Senate approved by a 93-6 vote a six-year, $12 billion authorization bill for Amtrak. Instead of jeopardizing Amtrak operations by firing a competent manager like Gunn, the administration should meet with members of Congress to devise a plan for the system that ensures reliable financing and a chance to bring high-quality, high-speed passenger rail service to all the nation's densely populated corridors.
© 2005 Boston Globe