Amtrak requests $1.8B for fiscal 2017
As published by Keith Lang in The Hill
Amtrak is requesting $1.8 billion for fiscal 2017, officials said Wednesday.
The request includes $649 million for operating expenses, $920 million for capital construction costs and $263 million in grants that were authorized by Congress in a transportation funding bill lawmakers approved last year.
Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman said the funding is part of a five-year plan for the company that is necessary to boost the nation’s passenger railways.
“In the years to come, we expect to see continued demand for capacity and performance growth on the [Northeast Corridor],” he said in a letter to Vice President Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“New trainsets will help, but the current infrastructure remains severely capacity-constrained at its most critical points,” Boardman continued. “The problems of deteriorating infrastructure associated with aging bridges, tunnels and systems are magnified under such conditions.”
Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the government for operations and construction projects.
The approved transportation funding includes approximately $10 billion over a five-year period for Amtrak, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
The law, known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, combined traditionally separate rail funding with highway and transit spending provisions.
The rail service’s last appropriations bill prior to the 2015 transportation bill provided about $1.3 billion per year to the company for a combination of operations, construction and debt service in 2008.
President Obama’s proposed budget for 2017 includes approximately $7 billion for high-speed rail projects, including Amtrak, in a plan to spend $320 billion over the next 10 years on “clean transportation.”
Amtrak’s subsidies have been hotly debated in recent years. Republicans have pushed in the past to privatize the service on its popular routes in the Northeast, arguing that private companies could operate trains there more efficiently.
The rail service has often countered the criticism by pointing out that most of the money from its Northeast routes is used to maintain money-losing, long-distance routes in parts of the country that have little airline 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.
Boardman said Wednesday that the company’s finances have greatly improved in recent years, making it less reliant than ever on federal subsidies for operating costs.
“Over the past decade and a half, Amtrak has undergone a remarkable transformation,” he wrote. “Ticket revenues have doubled, and operating cost recovery is higher than any other U.S. and most international passenger railroads.
“Amtrak has made some small but vital capital improvements and targeted investments in bridges and other infrastructure have helped to sustain the NEC. This company has been a good steward of the national intercity passenger rail system — within the limits of its budget.”
But he said lawmakers would still have to spend more on Amtrak to improve the nation’s passenger rail service.
“Federal investment in Amtrak made the economic benefit of intercity passenger rail possible,” he wrote.
“In the Northeast, the NEC and the intercity and commuter rail services it supports deliver an essential transportation service,” Boardman continued.
“Amtrak’s National Network links cities and smaller communities in other regions with major urban centers. Those benefits greatly exceed the scale of the annual Federal investment, and I think it’s important, in closing, to enumerate on the reach of our system, and the scale of those benefits,” he said.
Transportation advocates pressed Congress to grant Amtrak the requested funding.
“When Congress included a long-term reauthorization of Amtrak funding in the recently enacted surface transportation legislation, the FAST Act, lawmakers wisely chose to provide Amtrak with funding certainty and stability and rejected privatization and outsourcing mandates,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind said in a statement. “Congress must now invest in our chronically underfunded national passenger rail network by appropriating federal resources consistent with Amtrak’s FY 2017 funding request,” he added.