• Shuster Touts Amtrak Plan
  • May 29, 2015
  • Law Firm: McDonald Hopkins LLC - Cleveland Office
  • Usually, a tragedy like Tuesday's fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia would have spurred Congress to action. For once, however, it didn't take a tragedy for Congress to start its search for a solution. House Republicans and Democrats had already agreed on a plan that they say will help fix Northeast passenger rails.

    In March, the House approved a measure reauthorizing funding for Amtrak, which would rework the accounting structure of the rail network so that money made from the Northeast Corridor would be reinvested in the same line. One of the biggest criticisms of Amtrak is that it funds its money-losing long-range routes with profits from the Boston-New York-Washington line. Some of those long-range routes, like the Texas Eagle from Chicago to Los Angeles, lose hundreds of dollars per passenger. Meanwhile, the Northeast Corridor, a profitable route, has its own bottlenecks that can back up hundreds of trains for hours.

    On Wednesday, House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) touted his House-passed Amtrak plan, circulating bullet points on how his measure would change the way the corridor is funded. The bill from March would keep the Northeast Corridor funds within that rail line for upgrades. It would also create a dedicated grant program, matched by the states, to fix the projects with the highest priority. State transportation departments would be required to partner with Amtrak on portions of the rail line that they run, ensuring a smooth path to maintenance and upgrades.

    The measure is part of a broader push-and-pull over the size of Amtrak's budget, where that money should come from and where it should be spent. Conservatives, particularly in the House, have been opposed to increasing funding for Amtrak. Progressives, on the other hand, favor increasing the rail budget.

    Shuster managed to thread the needle between right and left when he struck a compromise with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the transportation panel's top Democrat. With the panel's top lawmakers on board, the bill passed the House in March by a vote of 316-101. All 101 no votes came from Republicans.

    Now the measure moves to the Senate. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they would "continue working with our colleagues on passenger rail reform." Thune and Nelson both say they are committed to seeing an Amtrak bill through passage sometime in this Congress.