War for Amtrak funding continues

By a vote of 17-4, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved S. 1516, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2005, on July 28.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act is a six-year reauthorization bill (FY 2006-2011), which provides for Amtrak's capital and operating needs to maintain current operations, upgrade equipment, and return the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to a state of good repair. Over the life of the bill, Amtrak's operating subsidy is reduced by 40 percent through cost cutting, restructuring, and reform while capital funding is increased. The bill creates an intercity passenger rail capital grant program for the States.

Senator Trent Lott (R- MS), Chairman of the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee, sponsored the bill along with Senator Frank Lautenberg (D- NJ), Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Senator John D. Rockafeller IV (D-WV).

"This is a new, innovative option for Amtrak funding," Senator Lott said.

The proposal would cut Amtrak's operating subsidies, but would increase the amount the federal government gives Amtrak to maintain its infrastructure. Other Senators said that this bill was proof that this Congress is committed to Amtrak funding.

"Every other country gives their passenger railroad subsidies," Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said.

Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT), an Amtrak supporter, said that there had "never been a Congress that has had a commitment to the rail carrier." Senator Burns also made a commitment to the locomotive engineers on Amtrak.

"We need a commitment to the public, right down to the people who drive the trains," Senator Burns said.

"This is the first time in a long time that Congress has made a commitment to long-term funding," said BLET National President Don M. Hahs.

It would be hard for Amtrak to attract enough private financing to make up for all the subsidies, and it would be very difficult to win private investment in the company's long-distance routes.

This passenger rail reauthorization bill centers around three themes: reform and accountability, adequate funding for intercity passenger rail, and passenger rail service improvement.

The bill would restructure Amtrak's debt, now about $1.7 billion. It also would require the company to provide periodic performance reports on some of its long-distance lines.

While introducing an amendment to the bill, Senator Hutchison noted the need for a commitment to a national railroad system and hoped for further cooperation of the freight railroads.

Senator Inouye noted that even though Amtrak does not run in his state, he still supports funding for the carrier.

"In Hawaii, we have a narrow gauge railroad that runs for a mile and a half, and in spite of this, I continue to support Amtrak," he said.

The details of bill, consisting of over 110 pages, and including more than two dozen amendments that were introduced during mark-up, are being reviewed by the BLET's National Legislative Department.

 

© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen