Senators introduce $9B Amtrak bill after deadly crash

Senators introduce $9B Amtrak bill after deadly crash
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Two senators are introducing legislation to spend nearly $9 billion on Amtrak after a deadly crash last month reignited a debate in Washington about the company's federal funding. 

The measure, which is sponsored by Sens. Roger WickerRoger WickerSenate GOP to Obama: Stop issuing new rules Marijuana backers worry over AG Sessions Gardner's chief of staff tapped for Senate GOP campaign director MORE (R-Miss.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), calls for spending approximately $1.65 billion annually over the next four years on the rail service, as well as $570 million per year on rail grants.  

The introduction of the "Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act” comes one month after an Amtrak train derailed near Philadelphia in a crash that killed eight passengers. 

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Wicker and Booker said it was important to give Amtrak funding to make safety improvements, especially on its heavily traveled tracks in the Northeast Corridor.  

“The nation’s passenger rail system serves as an integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” Wicker said in a statement.

“The tragic accident in Pennsylvania last month was a heartbreaking reminder that the system is far from perfect," he continued. "This bipartisan measure would make robust improvements to safety programs, improve existing infrastructure, and empower state and local officials. The bill also leverages private sector investment, cuts red tape, and increases transparency to make our critical infrastructure dollars go further." 

Booker agreed, saying lawmakers need to invest in Amtrak not only because of safety but to help the flow of U.S. business.

“To help the United States compete globally, we must invest in a safe and reliable passenger rail system that Americans can depend on. But too often our rail system falls short due to a lack of adequate infrastructure investment,” he said. 

"Our bipartisan bill takes important steps to improve rail safety in the wake of last month’s tragic derailment, modernize our aging passenger rail network, and maximize investments in infrastructure through improved financing and grant programs," Booker continued. "The legislation allows Amtrak to reinvest Northeast Corridor profits back into improving Northeast Corridor infrastructure, including throughout New Jersey." 

Lawmakers in the House moved last month to cut Amtrak's funding by about $300 million a day after the Philadelphia derailment, a move that was heavily criticized by Democrats and safety groups in Washington.

The lower chamber had previously passed a $7.8 billion bill for Amtrak that was known as the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act. 

The Senate's version of the measure would give Amtrak a slight increase from the present level of funding. 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. 

By comparison, the House's earlier Amtrak measure 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. 

Rail supporters said they greatly prefer the Senate's version of the Amtrak funding measure because it does not cut the federal government's spending on the company. 

"Unlike the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act recently passed by the House, this is a forward looking bill," Richard Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA), said in a statement.

"It creates the structure for a growing passenger rail network throughout the country," he continued. "We are happy with the increase in funding, but much more is required to meet the goals of the bill." 

Harnish said the Senate rail bill would allow Amtrak to make improvement to all of its services, not just in the popular Northeast Corridor. 

"Most importantly this bill would reorganize Amtrak’s board of directors to ensure regional representation, giving more voice to regions outside the NE Corridor," he said. "It would also begin to address the issues surrounding running faster, more frequent and more dependable trains on freight railroads.

This bill is a win for passenger rail advocates across the country." 

Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the government for operations and construction projects. The funding has become controversial in recent years, however, as some Republicans have pushed to eliminate the subsidies and privatize Amtrak's most profitable routes.   

-This story was last updated with new information at June 19 at 9:33 a.m.