Recent activity on Capitol Hill has brought the economic plight of Amtrak back into the spotlight. A House subcommittee recently approved a bill that would provide $550 million in funds to the service, despite Amtrak’s proposed two-year budget of $1.8 billion. The passenger rail service’s previous budget was $1.2 billion, and its most recent request increased that figure by 50%.
However, a Senate subcommittee boosted the House’s figure to approximately $1.4 billion, signaling that the rail network will receive more funding next year than it did this year.
Consistent with the Bush Administration plan to limit spending on Amtrak, the House bill had placed federal subsidy limits on underperforming routes by establishing a $30 per passenger per ride maximum cost on all routes except for the heavily traveled Northeast corridor. Ultimately, Senate leaders decided that the nation’s intercity rail system is too important to suffocate and not strong enough to sustain itself just yet.
Both sides of this ongoing debate have been passionate in their responses. Some government officials have claimed that it is irresponsible of the federal government to continue sponsoring unprofitable routes, some of which require subsidies that near $200 per passenger. Others are concerned that the budget cuts will cause states to lose passenger rail service completely if Amtrak is not funded at the level it has requested.
Amtrak has said time after time that the practical impact of cutting funding would be synonymous with the end of passenger rail service. Amtrak President David Gunn expressed satisfaction with the Senate bill, stating that the $1.4 billion, while still less than ideal, would ensure continuation of the rail line’s program to upgrade tracks, tunnels and other parts of its aging infrastructure.