Senate panel approves $9B Amtrak bill

Senate panel approves $9B Amtrak bill

The Senate committee overseeing the nation's infrastructure on Thursday approved a plan to spend nearly $9 billion on Amtrak over the next four years after a deadly crash reignited a debate in Washington about the rail service's funding. 

The measure, which calls for spending approximately $1.65 billion annually on Amtrak and $570 million per year on rail grants, was unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

The sponsors of the measure, Sens. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Senators grill safety regulator over self-driving cars Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill MORE (R-Miss.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), said the approval signifies the desire in Congress to give Amtrak funding to make safety improvements, especially on its heavily traveled tracks in the Northeast Corridor that were home to the deadly crash last month.    

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“Investing in our nation’s rail system is important to economic growth,” Wicker said of the measure, which is known as the "Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act.” 

“It connects businesses, moves goods, and transports Americans across the country," Wicker continued. "I am pleased that the committee has put forward a resounding vote in favor of our bill. This measure prioritizes safety, enhances rail infrastructure, encourages competition and makes smart use of taxpayer dollars." 

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

“Today’s vote brings us one step closer to passing a bill that reinvests in vital rail infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor, enhances safety and protects workers,” Booker said. 

“I now urge Senate leaders to pass this bipartisan bill that invests in a safe and reliable passenger rail system that Americans can depend on," he continued. "Time and time again our rail system falls short due to a lack of adequate infrastructure investment — we can and must do better. We must quickly build on this bipartisan effort by bringing this legislation to the Senate for a full vote.”

The committee's approval of the Amtrak funding measure comes one month after one of the company's trains derailed near Philadelphia in a crash that killed eight passengers. 

Lawmakers in the House moved 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 rail funding measure would give Amtrak a slight increase from the present level of federal spending. 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 House bill, which would also 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 have said they greatly prefer the Senate's version of the Amtrak funding measure because it does not cut 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, said in a statement when the measure was first introduced last week.

"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 improvements 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 [Northeast] 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.