House panel approves Amtrak budget cut

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A bill that would cut Amtrak’s authorization for new construction spending by 40 percent was unanimously approved Wednesday by the House Transportation Committee.  

The measure, which was passed on a voice vote with little debate, would reduce Amtrak's authorized spending level for new construction from approximately $1.3 billion per year under the last Amtrak funding measure to about $770 million annually beginning next year. 

Republicans and Democrats on the panel said the measure was bipartisan, despite the construction budget cut, because it does not go as far as previous GOP efforts to completely eliminate Amtrak's federal funding and privatize its profitable Northeast routes. 

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"There are some in Congress … who try to do away with Amtrak,” Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during Wednesday’s hearing. “The votes aren't there for that."

Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year for a combination of operations and construction from the federal government since its inception in 1971.

Republicans said the new measure would keep funding levels in line for the company while forcing them to streamline their operations when it came to construction. Democrats said the bill did not include as much money for boosting rail service as they would have liked, but they could live with it, because it did not whack Amtrak's funding for operating the train routes it already has. 

Shuster said Wednesday Republicans on the Transportation Committee patterned the Amtrak funding bill after recently approved measures for ports and waterways and aviation that included regulatory reforms alongside new federal spending. 

The measure requires Amtrak to divert about $470 million per year to a trust fund for improvements along its heavily traveled Northeast corridor, the most profitable in the company’s network. 

The bill would also appropriate another $300 million per year for construction on Amtrak routes in the rest of country and provide about $982 million per year for nationwide operations. 

The rail service's 2008 appropriations bill provided about $1.3 billion to the company for operations, construction and debt service. 

Democrats on the Transportation Committee said they could live with the cut in Amtrak's construction appropration this time around because the company’s operating revenue was largely being left intact, though some grumbled that Congress should be considering increasing its funding. 

“I would’ve wanted to include much more funding for Amtrak,” said Rep. Corrine BrownCorrine BrownInsiders dominate year of the outsider The Hill’s 12:30 Report Corrine Brown loses primary amid indictment MORE (D-Fla.) of her preferences at the beginning of the rail funding negotiations with Republican leaders in the House. 

“There is no perfect bill, but I can truly say this is a perfect start,” Brown quickly added, however.  

Amtrak’s subsidies have been a source of contention for years in Congress. Republicans have pushed in the past to privatize the service on its popular routes in the Northeast, arguing that nongovernment owned companies could operate trains there more efficiently. 

Amtrak is a government-owned corporation that has been subsidized by Congress since its inception. The company has countered criticism about its subsidies by pointing out that most of the money is used to maintain money-losing, long-distance routes in parts of the country that have little air service. 

The company has touted record ridership in recent years as an argument in favor of increasing its federal appropriations to pay for needed improvements along the Northeast corridor, the only tracks in the country that are owned and operated directly by Amtrak.

"Passenger rail has experienced impressive growth across the country in recent years and having a federal partner is key to continuing its success in the years ahead," the company said in a statement when the proposed funding measure was introduced last week.  

"We are reviewing the proposed legislation and look forward to working with Congress to enact a bill that addresses critical infrastructure investment needs, improves safety and security, enhances customer service and provides for greater financial efficiencies," the Amtrak statement continued. "These improvements are needed to grow and sustain passenger rail and meet the expectations of our passengers and the 46 states and more than 500 communities served by Amtrak.”

Amtrak shares tracks with freight rail companies for most of its routes outside of the Northeast U.S., and it operates short distance routes that are paid for by individual states under agreements that have been negotiated in recent years. 

The measure to cut Amtrak's construction budget that was approved on Wednesday is a reauthorization of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which is a year overdue. 

The new bill has been renamed the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act (PRRIA). 

The bill is unlikely to move closer to becoming law than Wednesday’s committee passage because Congress is scheduled to work a light schedule for the remainder of the year to accommodate campaigning for November’s election.

-This story was updated with new information at 2:15 p.m.