House passes $8B Amtrak funding bill

Getty Images

The House passed legislation on Wednesday authorizing nearly $8 billion in funding for Amtrak in a 316-101 vote.

The vote badly divided Republicans, as all of the no votes came from the GOP. The measure wouldn't have been approved but for the support of the House's Democrats.

ADVERTISEMENT
Eight committee chairmen opposed the measure: Small Business Chairman Steve Chabot (Ohio), Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (Texas), House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (Texas), Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (Fla.), Budget Chairman Tom Price (Ga.), Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (Calif.), Rules Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas).

Other no votes came from the House's hard-line conservatives, including Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.), Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Justin AmashJustin AmashHouse Freedom Caucus member slows floor business House votes to block Gitmo transfers Republican exodus from Trump grows MORE (Mich.), Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) and Matt SalmonMatt Salmon GOP lawmakers give Trump bad reviews on debate performance House GOP talks 'minibuses,' moves toward Senate in spending fight Gloom sets in for GOP MORE (Ariz.). 

The conservative group Heritage Action key-voted the measure, ensuring many Republicans would oppose it.

The White House backs the measure, which must be approved by the Senate to reach President Obama's desk.

Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the government for operations and construction projects.

The measure would authorize about $982 million per year for the company's national network and another $470 million annually for its popular Northeast U.S. routes.

The bill, which would expire in 2019, sets another $300 million per year for construction on Amtrak routes in the rest of country and about $24 million per year for the company's inspector general. 

The rail service's last authorization bill in 2008 provided about $1.3 billion to the company for a combination of operations, construction and debt service. 

Amtrak’s subsidies have been hotly debated in recent years. Republicans have pushed in the past to privatize the service on its popular routes in the Northeast, arguing that nongovernment entities could operate trains more efficiently.

“If lawmakers want to provide quality, reliable service without burdening taxpayers they should seek to privatize Amtrak, ending federal subsidies altogether,” Heritage Action wrote, explaining its decision to score lawmakers' votes against the bill.

Amtrak has countered the criticism in the past by pointing out that most of the money from its northeast passengers is used to maintain money-losing, long-distance routes in parts of the country that have little air service.

Amtrak supporters have also pointed to record ridership in recent years as an argument in favor of increasing its federal appropriations to pay for improvements along the Northeast corridor, the only tracks in the country owned and operated directly by Amtrak.

However, a provision touted by Republicans in the bill would require revenue that is generated by trips in the Northeast to be used only for improvements in the popular corridor. That could force Amtrak to streamline its longer routes elsewhere in the country. 

“This nation has significant transportation challenges ahead, and Amtrak looks forward to working with leadership to ensure intercity passenger rail will keep people and the economy moving,” said Amtrak in a statement.

Democrats, meanwhile, claimed victory in the fact that Amtrak's funding was not drastically cut by Republicans now in control of Congress.

"We cannot lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we are still woefully underfunding Amtrak," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). But, he conceded, "Given the budget constraints imposed by the majority, it is probably the best bill we could hope for right now if we want to move a bipartisan bill."

Another provision of the bill would direct Amtrak to start a pilot program allowing passengers to bring cats and dogs on trains.

Under the program, Amtrak would designate at least one passenger car on trains where pets could be transported in kennels stowed in compliance with size requirements for carry-on luggage. Passengers would have to pay a fee in order to bring their pets aboard.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said the provision allowing pets on trains would help increase revenue.

"This is something that will allow new riders that didn't previously want to ride the train before because they couldn't take their pet on there to do so, but also a new revenue generation with paying for those pets the same way that our airplanes across the country are paid for taking their pets," Denham said.

This story was updated at 7:01 p.m.