Senate Democrats have taken strong action to give travelers and commuters more options, relieve crowding on highways and in airports, and reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by passing a six-year, $11.6 billion bill to reauthorize and strengthen Amtrak. The bipartisan bill, S.294, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007, also includes a 40 percent reduction in Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy and requires Amtrak to become more efficient through increased ridership and revenue, cost containment, and management improvements.
Congress has not passed Amtrak legislation since 1997. In 2005, bipartisan attempts by the Senate to improve and modernize Amtrak’s operations were blocked by Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. That same year, President Bush actually proposed sending the railroad into bankruptcy, and in other years he has proposed killing off Amtrak service by under-funding the railroad. In the interim, Amtrak has been muddling through with barely enough funds to keep operating, and certainly not enough funding to significantly improve service or expand into new towns and cities.
With the change in control of Congress, Senators Lautenberg and Lott continued to push for the passage of S.294, demonstrating the bipartisan commitment to strengthening Amtrak. The Senate’s passage of S.294 will go a long ways towards improving the operations of Amtrak and reviving a vital component of our country’s transportation network. Passage of S.294 is another example of the continued efforts by Democrats to invest in America’s priorities, which have been neglected by President Bush and prior Republican Congresses.
Improving service for travelers. With increasing delays at airports and more congestion on our highways, Senate Democrats are investing in high-quality passenger rail service as a viable travel option. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007 takes the following steps to improve passenger service:
- Authorizes $11.4 billion over six years to fully fund Amtrak’s capital and operating needs to allow the railroad to operate efficiently and expand into areas where rail is needed the most.
- Sets a minimum standard of 80 percent on-time performance record for Amtrak trains, and allows the Surface Transportation Board to issue fines to freight railroad companies for delaying Amtrak trains. This is important because freight trains are responsible for significant Amtrak train delays.
- Requires the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to develop standards for passenger rail service, such as on-time performance, schedules and locations for Amtrak service, cleanliness of restrooms and other facilities, and food and beverage options available to riders.
- Mandates specific plans for each train route that fails to meet FRA standards and requires Amtrak to focus on its lowest-performing trains first by taking actions to improve scheduling and on-board customer service.
Protecting taxpayers. Every passenger railroad in the world operates with some sort of government subsidy. S.294 ensures that federal funds received by Amtrak are used responsibility. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007 includes the following measures to protect American taxpayers:
- Requires a 40 percent reduction in Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy over six years.
- Requires Amtrak to become more efficient through increased revenue and ridership, cost containment, and management improvements.
- Mandates a new financial accounting system for the railroad and requires that Amtrak’s Board of Directors submit an annual budget and five-year financial plans to Congress.
- Allows Amtrak to take advantage of existing market conditions to refinance or restructure its existing debt liabilities.
Repairing infrastructure. In 2004, the Inspector General at the Department of Transportation found that Amtrak’s infrastructure had reached critical levels and was close to failing. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007 takes the following actions to improve the nation’s passenger rail infrastructure:
- Authorizes a significant increase in capital funding for Amtrak, averaging $818 million in capital grants per year, to improve infrastructure, facilities, and equipment that would enhance Amtrak’s efficiency and the marketability of its services.
- Authorizes $1.4 billion in grants to states for new passenger rail projects.
- Authorizes funding to return the Northeast Corridor — America’s busiest rail corridor, running from Boston, MA, to Washington, DC — to a state of good repair. The bill also mandates that states along the corridor be involved in the infrastructure rehabilitation planning process.
Energy efficient travel for America’s future. The U.S. Department of Energy has found that Amtrak trains are a nearly 20 percent more fuel-efficient way to travel than commercial airliners and cars. Also, per passenger-mile, trains emit half the amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as jet planes. These efficiencies will help stem the causes of global warming, as well as reducing our nation’s reliance on oil.