USDOT: Amtrak's proposed 2018 budget includes all available funding

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WASHINGTON – Senators used words like “concerned,” and “dismayed” as they considered the Trump administration's proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation during a hearing July 13. Members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation were looking at an overall budget that's been cut $2.4 billion from the 2017 DOT budget.

If they were hoping that the administration would reconsider restoring some funding, the hearing's sole witness, DOT Secretary Elaine L. Chao, gave them no comfort.

The administration proposes to reduce DOT's annual budget from $18.6 billion to $16.2 billion. It would eliminate subsidies for Amtrak long-distance routes, and channel the funds into improving the infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor. It would provide enough money to continue funding transit and commuter rail projects under the Federal Transit Administration's Capital Investment Program, but no funds for new starts.

Amtrak is depending on a Capital Investment Program grant to finance a portion of the costs of building a new tunnel under the Hudson River between Newark, N.J., and New York Penn Station. A recent report estimates that NJ Transit, the project manager, will need an estimated $12.9 billion to build the new tunnel and rehabilitate the existing tunnel.

Questions ranged from the popular TIGER grant program, which would be zeroed out in 2018, to the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes service to smaller cities, which faces defunding, just like Amtrak's long-distance trains.

“With regard to Amtrak, I am concerned about the impact that elimination of long-distance service would have on shared infrastructure with state-supported routes, such as the Downeaster in Maine,” said Sen Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the subcommittee.

“Long distance routes contribute in part to the capital expenditures for the Northeast Corridor,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member on the subcommittee. “That's something of concern to many of us on the committee. It appears there will not be adequate resources for the Northeast Corridor.” He asked Chao, “Are you able to focus additional resources on the capital infrastructure of the Northeast Corridor?”

“The Northeast Corridor is the only one that has ability to sustain itself,” Chao said. She said DOT is working closely with Amtrak and with local and state authorities in that region, but there is no money available, except what's in the president's budget.

Reed continued, “There is a massive capital investment need in the Northeast Corridor which goes beyond the capacity of Amtrak in any way, shape or form. That's something I don't see reflected strenuously enough in the budget.”

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said his concern was that cuts in Amtrak intercity service will increase congestion on the highways.

“Help me understand how you can justify cuts so deep and so broad in Amtrak funding that has demonstrated to have a positive impact on getting people off our highways and moving them efficiently,” Coons said.

“Hopefully rearranging all the fundings, and terminating federal funding for the long distances, will allow Amtrak to focus its resources on the most vibrant part of Amtrak,” Chao said.

“The Northeast Corridor has a $38 billion 'state of good repair' backlog. How do you envision that backlog being addressed?” Coon asked.

Chao's response seemed to say the repair backlog was Amtrak's problem.

“These are repairs which have been delayed and the maintenance requirements are immense,” Chao said. “There has to be some way of looking at all these repairs, strategically figuring out best to prioritize these repairs, have a program, and then execute.

“Amtrak has a new president, and I am very hopeful the president and the board will be able to address some of these issues,” Chao said.

To watch the full hearing, to go

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