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Amtrak Funding Boost Has Better Shot in 110th, Lawmakers Say

A bipartisan push in the Senate to reauthorize federal funding for Amtrak is on the right track, say lawmakers and state and federal transportation officials — as long as the cash infusion is coupled with management reforms.

The Passenger Rail and Investment Improvement Act, S. 294, which is sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), would authorize $19.2 billion over six years — an amount that supporters say would provide the struggling rail carrier the financial support it’s been lacking. The total includes $7.8 billion in bonding authority for states and Amtrak to develop and build new rail infrastructure.

Democratic control of both chambers gives the legislation a better chance at enactment than other recent efforts. Last year, for instance, the Senate passed similar language, 93-6, as an amendment to the budget reconciliation package. But the provision died during negotiations in the House.

In recent years, the Bush administration has proposed zeroing out Amtrak funding. The president’s fiscal 2008 budget proposal would cut Amtrak’s funding from $1.3 billion to $900 million.

“I don’t know how we can continue to ignore this crucial need,” said Lautenberg, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation surface transportation and Merchant Marine infrastructure, safety and security subcommittee, at a subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

Lautenberg and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a fellow subcommittee member and co-sponsor of the measure, have been careful to not characterize the federal funding as an Amtrak bail-out. They say the bill requires several reforms, which are designed to cut operating costs by 40 percent over the six-year period.

“This is about reform and accountability,” Lott said at a news conference in January after the bill’s introduction. “It’s not just a big chunk of money,” Lott said .

The measure would require Amtrak to create a new financial accounting system, require customer-service standards for on-time performance and develop new on-board and station services. Each year the rail company would have to create a five-year financial plan detailing revenues and expenditures and projected ridership levels.

While the bill would authorize $237 million in capital grants to states to develop new rail service, it would require states to match funds for inter-city rail capital investments.

Alex Kummant, Amtrak president and chief executive officer, said the matching program is essential for future rail development.

“Passenger rail serves as a catalyst for economic development, frequently playing a significant role in rejuvenating urban centers,” Kummant said at the hearing.

Frank Busalacchi, the transportation secretary for the state of Wisconsin agreed, but added that the bill does not contain adequate funding for state-sponsored projects.

“Of the $6.3 billion in capital funds, state-sponsored projects are eligible to receive only $1.4 billion,” Busalacchi said. “It’s going to be hard unless we have a real strong federal partner.”

A recent Government Accountability Office report found that unless Amtrak changed its business practices it would continue to “limp along.”

Joseph Boardman, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, warned the subcommittee that the bill would not be effective if it did not provide clear guidelines for how the additional funds would be spent.

He predicted that funding differences between the Bush Administration and Congress could result in “political deadlock.”

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