Amtrak national network likely to survive the congressional budget process

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WASHINGTON — Debate in the House of Representatives on an omnibus spending bill this week will be critical for the future of Amtrak funding. The carrier's long-distance network may keep most of its federal subsidy, but how much will be allocated to infrastructure programs is still up in the air, according to Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation.

The House proposes $1.1 billion for the national network; the Senate $1.24 billion. The final figure will likely end up between the two, overruling the Trump administration's $525 million budget request.

“Congress will not accept the massive elimination of Amtrak operating subsidies in the long-distance routes,” Davis said. Unless the president is willing to veto funding the entire government over that issue, the final subsidy will lie between the House and Senate figures.

In fact, House Republicans rejected one amendment Wednesday evening that would have completely killed Amtrak funding.

The Department of Transportation budget was rolled into the omnibus measure. The Senate has passed no appropriations bills, and will likely use the House bill as the starting point for conference negotiations, Davis said.

There will be more floor debate on the balance of Amtrak funding, including the Gateway Program to improve corridor infrastructure in the New Jersey-New York region. U.S. Rep. Rodney Freylinghuysen, R-N.J., appropriations committee chairman, put $500 million into the bill to cover the first year of Gateway. Another $400 million would be available with funds allocated to the Federal Transit Administration's Capital Improvement Grant program.

It's going to cost nearly $13 billion for the biggest Gateway project, boring a new tunnel under the Hudson River and rehabbing the existing tunnels. But Davis said the first priority will be $1.8 billion to replace the North Portal Bridge, a century-old swing span over the Hackensack River.

“All the environmental work was done 10 years ago. It will get funded before the Hudson tunnel because all the paperwork is in order,” Davis said. Engineering work on the tunnel has barely begun.

The House also provided $500 million for a federal-state partnership to bring passenger rail infrastructure into a state of good repair. Amtrak is eligible to apply for grants under the program, but the amount Congress offers is well below what's needed to address the railroad's backlog.

“The capital contribution is at the level that was authorized by Congress, but long-term, the numbers are still bad,” Davis said. “The capital needs of the Northeast Corridor are significantly above anything the current appropriations trends.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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