By Ben Pershing
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
By now, it's nearly impossible to have missed the fact that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee, is such a homebody and regular guy that he rides Amtrak between Washington and Delaware every day when Congress is in session.
But Biden isn't just one of the passenger rail system's most famous commuters -- he is also one of its biggest supporters in the Senate.
"He's right up there," said David Johnson, deputy director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "I'd say in the top five [in the Senate] for sure. I can definitely say he's the biggest user."
Amtrak is critical to Delaware's economy -- the state is the only one with no commercial air service -- so all three of its members of Congress are strong backers of government funding for rail. Fellow Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D) actually may play a bigger legislative role than Biden does, because Carper serves on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
But Biden certainly has done enough to win the hearts of Amtrak's supporters, even earning a "Champion of the Rails" award from Amtrak's president in 2001.
"Senator Biden's voting record is very clear in support of Amtrak," Johnson said. "Both his votes and his words have backed that up over the years, and we are certainly pleased that he was selected to be the vice presidential candidate."
Biden even has a family connection to Amtrak. His younger son, Hunter, is a lobbyist and the vice chairman of Amtrak's board of directors, having been nominated to a five-year term on the board by President Bush in 2006. (Biden's older son, Beau, is the Delaware attorney general and is viewed by some as a potential successor to his father, should the senator make it to the White House.)
Joe Biden is an original co-sponsor of the Amtrak reauthorization bill, known as the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007, versions of which have passed both chambers and are now awaiting a conference committee. He also is a regular signatory to letters calling for increased funding for the rail service, a perennial target for cuts by conservatives and other critics, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Amtrak's federal subsidy, which topped $1.3 billion for fiscal 2008, has frequently drawn complaints from budget hawks who argue that the rail system is inefficient and should not continue to operate on little-used routes.
In its fiscal 2009 budget request, the Bush administration proposed what it called "a significant but necessary cut" of more than $500 million from the system's budget. The White House said the suggested reduction "reflects that Amtrak has taken few steps to align its business with the traveling public's demand for intercity rail service and that it consequently continues to hemorrhage taxpayer funds."
Johnson said an Obama-Biden victory wouldn't necessarily translate into an avalanche of federal funds for Amtrak. He noted that Al Gore was a big booster of passenger rail when he was in Congress "and yet some of the biggest cuts in service came during the Clinton-Gore administration."
"As Jerry Maguire said, 'Show me the money,' " Johnson said.