Unions to Senate: Get moving on Amtrak funding

Unions to Senate: Get moving on Amtrak funding
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The AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) said Tuesday that the Senate should take up a $7.8 billion funding bill for Amtrak that was passed earlier this year by the House. 

Lawmakers have been focusing on a looming deadline involving federal highway funding that is set to expire at the end of the month, but AFL-CIO TTD President Ed Wytkind said the upper chamber should also make room on its agenda this month for Amtrak. 

“The House has now spoken on the need to give Amtrak predictable funding and longer term stability,” Wytkind wrote in a blog post on the labor group’s website. 

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“The Senate must now finish the job by boosting funding levels and resisting wrongheaded reforms that would threaten our national passenger railroad and the 20,000 employees who keep Amtrak trains rolling across America,” he continued. 

The House version of the Amtrak 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. 

The measure, which is 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. 

Wytkind said Monday that the House version of the Amtrak funding measure is far from perfect, but it is better than allowing the rail service to go on without any federal support. 

“Amtrak is an important driver of job creation and economic development, and a key part of any plan to address America’s mobility needs as congestion dooms travelers and businesses in most areas of the country,” he wrote.

“If we invest in Amtrak at the level needed the result will be more transportation options for Americans and middle class job creation in transportation, construction, manufacturing and many other job sectors,” Wytkind continued. “The alternative is to leave our passenger rail network to wither relying on old equipment, technology from a different era and infrastructure that dates back to the previous century.” 

Amtrak’s subsidies have hotly debated in recent years. Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the government for operations and construction projects.

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.

Wytkind said the increased ridership should spur the Senate to act on extending the company’s federal funding this summer. 

“Almost 31 million passengers took an Amtrak train last year – that’s up 4 percent,” he wrote. 

This increased popularity in our U.S. passenger rail system comes at a time when Amtrak continues to be short-changed by those in Congress who think we can cut our way to prosperity,” Wytkind continued. “Anemic funding levels have forced our national passenger carrier to postpone or shelve critical capital projects including repairing or replacing 100-year old tunnels and upgrading its aging fleet.”