Amtrak funding hearing set for Wednesday

Amtrak funding hearing set for Wednesday

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday on its bill that would cut Amtrak's construction funding by 40 percent.

The measure, which was unveiled by lawmakers last week, would reduce Amtrak's funding for new construction from approximately $1.3 billion per year under the last Amtrak appropriations measure to about $770 million annually beginning next year.

The budget cut would be offset by a slight increase in spending in the measure for current train operations to appease Democrats.

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However, Republican leaders on the panel have said the end result would still be a funding reduction that would force Amtrak to streamline its operations.

“The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act will bring our nation’s rail system into the 21st century,” Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who is the primary author of the proposed legislation, said in a statement last week.

“It reduces costs, strengthens crucial infrastructure, and encourages innovation through partnerships with the states and the private sector," Denham continued. "The bill will require Amtrak to operate more like a business and force them to be accountable and transparent to taxpayers.”

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

Democrats on the committee who have opposed prior GOP attempts to cut Amtrak's funding said last week they could support the proposed rail bill because it does not go as far as efforts to completely eliminate the company’s federal appropriations.

“This bill provides much-needed investments in the long-distance network and ensures the continuation of all long-distance trains, including the Cardinal Route that runs through southern West Virginia,” said the top-ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Nick RahallNick Joe RahallWe shouldn't allow politics to impede disaster relief Break the cycle of partisanship with infant, child health care programs Clinton mulls role in 2018 midterms MORE (W.Va.), in a statement.

“Reliable passenger rail service helps move our economy forward and is critical to communities across our nation,” Rahall continued.

The measure that will be considered by the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday 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 measure would 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 result is a reduction in Amtrak's overall annual appropriation from about $1.9 billion to approximately $1.4 billion per year. The company's 2008 appropriations bill provided about $606 million per year for its nationwide operating expenses, in addition to the $1.3 billion for construction.

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.

Amtrak 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.

The company shares tracks with freight rail companies for most of its routes outside of the Northeast U.S.