Amtrak requests $260M funding increase

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Amtrak is requesting a $260 million funding bump from Congress, saying increased ridership is stressing the current system.

The company has asked for an appropriation of $1.62 billion, up from its current $1.36 billion level.

Amtrak Board of Directors Chairman Tony Coscia said Tuesday that the 16 percent bump was necessary to keep the railway viable, citing the company's popular Northeast Corridor, where trains run frequently between Boston and Washington, D.C.

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"Increased ridership, enhanced operating performance and stronger financial management are part of an improving Amtrak. It is time to consider a new paradigm for federal financial support," Coscia said in a statement. "The reality is that status quo federal funding levels put the Northeast Corridor infrastructure at increased risk of major failure with serious economic consequences for the nation."

The funding increase request comes after Republicans lawmakers sharply criticized Amtrak for launching a "writers' residency" program that involved giving applicants free rides. Amtrak says the free trips will be limited to just 24 writers and could result in positive publicity for the company.

GOP lawmakers argue that the company can ill-afford to provide round-trip tickets that are valued as high as $900 when it is receiving subsidies from Congress — let alone asking for more money.

Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman said lawmakers have a vested interest in keeping the rails running.

"Infrastructure deterioration and changes in business patterns have reached a point where something has to change," Boardman said. "If America wants a modern intercity passenger rail system, the problems of policy and funding must be addressed."

Amtrak has traditionally received about $1 billion per year from Congress since its inception in 1971. The company's officials point out that most of the money is now used for infrastructure improvements because, they say, more than 80 percent of Amtrak's train operations are now covered by revenue from ticket sales.

Boardman said underfunding the Northeast Corridor would potentially upset that calculation.

"The nation cannot afford to let a railroad that carries half of Amtrak's trains and 80 percent of the nation's rail commuters fall apart," Boardman said.

Boardman said Amtrak's profits from the Northeast Corridor are currently being used to help subsidize long-distance trains that frequently run to areas of the country that have little-to-no air service.

Boardman cited Amtrak's increased overall ridership numbers, which topped a record 31.6 million last year, to make the case for the funding hike.

"It is clear that Americans wants a national system of intercity passenger rail, and will continue to use it in greater numbers if we can provide it," Boardman said. "Our work over the past decade proves this, but to maintain and improve that system will require both an increase in the overall capital levels and a real federal commitment to deliver the needed financing."