A preliminary step toward spinning off Amtrak's Northeast Corridor train service was touted as a crucial move forward by the rail agency's chairman yesterday, but it was greeted with questions and outright opposition from politicians, rail advocates, and regional planners.
Amtrak's chairman, David M. Laney, said that splitting off the Boston-to- Washington, D.C. corridor -- the system's most heavily traveled leg -- under joint federal-state management is the only way to revitalize US passenger rail service.
''We are ultimately headed toward an environment in which states will end up covering some portion of state operations," Laney told the Associated Press yesterday in a telephone interview from his Dallas law office.
Under a plan being proposed by the board, Amtrak would create a Northeast Corridor subsidiary run by a consortium made up of the federal government and the state governments the rail lines serve.
Members of the consortium would share maintenance costs, while Amtrak would operate the trains.
Reaction along the corridor to the plan was mixed. Some politicians and planners said that increased state participation and input could result in better service -- as long as the federal government still shoulders most of the financial burden.
Others saw it as a move by some conservatives in the Bush administration to break up, and eventually kill, the troubled passenger rail service.
President Bush has said he wants to cut all Amtrak subsidies and eventually create regional rail service that would be managed by states.
Some state officials even said they had been taken by surprise by recent news of the board's Sept. 22 vote to authorize the creation of the spinoff entity.
''For Amtrak to take even an initial step towards breaking up the railroad without consulting with the governors in the Northeast Corridor calls into question their commitment to a partnership for better rail service in the future," said Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat.
Jon Carlisle, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation, said last night that officials in the administration of Governor Mitt Romney had not had a chance to study the proposal, and that they were therefore reserving comment.
Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for Greater Boston, said that state and local officials ''might welcome a bit of control," if it could lead to better service.
''At least it would get us out of this endless battle over whether there should be a national rail service," he said. ''But if it is just an excuse to take federal money out of the system, then it's a bad sign."
Some analysts said the states were being given damaged goods, perhaps as if they were getting keys to a car with bald tires and an engine that has gone 30,000 miles without an oil change. Former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, who now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that states would face large bills for repairs and maintenance.
''The federal government has not put enough money into maintaining the track; they are proposing to hand over a piece of infrastructure that is in very bad shape," he said.
Congress would have to agree to transfer control of the Northeast Corridor. Several rail advocates, including James P. RePass, president and chief executive officer of the National Corridors Initiative, a Rhode Island nonprofit that advocates rail travel, and former governor and Amtrak board member Michael S. Dukakis, said they believed there is enough opposition to block the plan.
''I think what will happen is that the Congress will just kill it," Dukakis said.
Amtrak supporters are pushing for the passage of a Senate bill that would reduce Amtrak's federal operating subsidy by 40 percent but would give it money for improvements to tracks and equipment.
The Bush administration has called for no subsidies for Amtrak, but the House has approved an appropriation of almost $1.2 billion for this budget year.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.