House to consider cutting Amtrak budget

House to consider cutting Amtrak budget
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The House is scheduled to mark up a bill that would cut Amtrak’s construction budget by 40 percent on Wednesday.  

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. 

Democrats are tepidly supporting the measure because it does not go as far as previous GOP efforts to completely eliminate the Amtrak's funding and privatize its profitable Northeast routes. 

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Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterEx-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company MORE (R-Pa.) said he hoped the offsets would be enough to allow the Amtrak funding bill to move quickly once it leaves the station at Wednesday’s hearing. 

“Nobody got everything, everybody got some,” the transportation committee chairman said of the Amtrak funding bill at an event that was hosted by The Hill on Tuesday. 

“I think it’s a very good strong reform bill that builds on the past bill that had reforms for passenger rail,” Shuster continued. “We’re working very hard to make sure there are no amendments….if we’re able to eliminate them all, I’m hoping it passes on a voice vote.” 

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.

The measure that is being 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.

"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 intra-state routes that are paid for by individual states under agreements that have negotiated in recent years. 

The measure to cut Amtrak's construction budget is a year-overdue reauthorization of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. The new bill has been renamed the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act (PRRIA). 

The last congressional rail funding measure, which was scheduled to expire in 2013, was signed by former President George W. Bush.