Senators Try Again to Fund and Reform Amtrak

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) introduced legislation yesterday that would authorize $3.2 billion a year for Amtrak over six years in exchange for greater efficiency and increased investments by states.

Supporters said the plan would place Amtrak on a firm financial footing after years of instability.

A similar bill was passed by the Senate in November, 93 to 6, but was not taken up by the House of Representatives. Lautenberg said prospects were much improved with Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress.

"It's not going to be that difficult this year," Lautenberg said yesterday at a news conference at Union Station, where he was joined by Lott and Alexander K. Kummant, Amtrak's chief executive.

Amtrak, the main operator of passenger trains in the country, has been beset with money-losing routes, hobbled by technical troubles, criticized for mismanagement and crippled by a lack of capital investment. Conservatives especially have questioned whether large operating subsidies for Amtrak are a wise investment.

Amtrak received $1.3 billion in federal funding last fiscal year.

Jim Berard, spokesman for U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, agreed that Democratic control of the House will help place Amtrak funding on an express track this year.

"Given the change in management and the new management's more favorable view of Amtrak, we expect it to get through the committee and to the floor," Berard said.

Lautenberg and Lott said that having a viable passenger rail option is vital to the nation's economy and environment.

"We cannot depend entirely on airplanes and roads," Lautenberg said.

In addition to all the carrots, the bill offers several sticks, such as expecting Amtrak to reduce operating costs by 40 percent over six years.

"This is about reform and accountability," Lott said. "It's not just a big chunk of money."

Kummant declined to specify how he would reduce operating costs, but he said that encouraging passenger growth is just as important as cutting services to achieve efficiencies.

The bill would authorize $1.7 billion in debt repayment, $7.8 billion in new bonding authority and $300 million a year in grants that would have to be matched by states.

Lautenberg and Lott said that local matching grants would encourage overall investment in the system as well as states' sharing in the cost of providing services to less popular destinations, which generally require the largest subsidies.

Kummant said the bill fits his vision of the rail network of the future, which would be a series of state rail networks threaded into national corridors.

Hurdles remain, such as the House's new pay-as-you-go budget rules and the Bush administration's skepticism on Amtrak funding.

Lautenberg was asked how he would find the money to pay for the bill.

"The same way we find money to pay for other things,'' he said.

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