Panel approves $7.8 billion for Amtrak

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The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday quietly approved nearly $8 billion in funding for Amtrak.

The measure calls for spending approximately $1.7 billion annually over the next four years on the rail service, a slight increase from the present level of funding.

Prior Amtrak funding debates in Washington have been contentious affairs, but lawmakers said this year's bill — which was approved unanimously — is fair to both supporters and critics of the national rail service.

"This is a good reform bill that firmly moves passenger rail towards greater transparency and accountability, and forces Amtrak to operate like a true business,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement after the bill's passage.

The top ranking Democrat on the Transportation panel said he agreed with the chairman's assessment. 

“In every region of the country, passenger rail investments boost local economies and create thousands of family-wage construction, engineering, and manufacturing jobs," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. "This bill isn’t perfect — but it was a bipartisan effort that ultimately provides critical investments and system wide improvements to increase capacity and make our railways safer."
Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the government for operations and construction projects.

The measure that was approved on Thursday, known as the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment (PRRIA) Act, provides about $982 million per year for Amtrak's national network and another $470 million annually for its popular Northeast U.S. routes.

The bill, which would expire in 2019, appropriates 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 appropriations bill in 2008 provided about $1.3 billion to the company for a combination of operations, construction and debt service.

Amtrak’s subsidies have 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 owned companies could operate trains there more efficiently.

The company has countered the criticism 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, Republicans touted a provision in Thursday's bill that would require revenue that is generated by trips in the Northeast to be used only for improvements in the popular corridor, which could force Amtrak to streamline its longer routes. 

"Passage of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act is an investment in our infrastructure that will make Amtrak operate more like a business — better responding to the needs of its customers and focusing on efficiency, transparency, and cost-saving,” Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said in a statement. 

Amtrak supporters lamented the fact that the legislation that was approved on Thursday will not greatly increase U.S. rail funding, but they said they were glad the spending was not drastically cut with Republicans now in control of both houses of Congress.
“Making investments in passenger rail service not only creates economic benefits and employment opportunities, it also enhances the overall experience for passengers and improves safety,” Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), the top ranking Democrat on the House rail subcommittee, said in a statement. 

“This legislation may not represent the level of funding I think is necessary, but most rail supporters agree that in today’s political climate it is the most that advocates can expect,” Capuano continued.