- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Money-losing Amtrak got a vote of confidence from the Senate yesterday with approval of $11.4 billion to keep the national passenger railway running for the next six years.

The bill, approved 70-22, also outlines steps to reduce Amtrak’s reliance on taxpayer dollars, with a goal of cutting operating costs by 40 percent over six years.

That, however, wasn’t enough to satisfy the White House, which said it opposed the bill because it falls short of demands that Amtrak first carry out more fundamental changes, including allocating resources based on passenger rail service demand, opening up to competition and investing more in the money-making Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak funding has been an annual sticking point between the Bush administration, which has pushed for ending Amtrak subsidies and eliminating unprofitable lines, and supporters in Congress, including many Republicans, who argue there is no major national railway in the world operating without government subsidies.

“When we give Amtrak the resources it needs, more Americans take the train,” said bill sponsor Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat. “When travelers choose the energy efficiency of rail over cars and planes, they reduce gridlock, help combat global warming and even reduce our reliance on foreign oil.”

Amtrak, created by Congress in 1970, last year carried nearly 26 million passengers, a record. In fiscal 2006 the railway earned about $2 billion and incurred about $3 billion in expenses. Congress in 1997 passed an Amtrak overhaul bill that was supposed to have put the railway on a path to self-sufficiency by 2003.

The new bill directs the Treasury to try to refinance Amtrak’s $3 billion in debt and requires a new accounting system to improve Amtrak’s transparency and cost controls.

The Senate rejected amendments that would have more directly linked Amtrak’s future to reducing red ink.

The administration made clear that it will not fund Amtrak at the $11.4 billion level authorized under the legislation. In its budget request for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, the administration sought only $300 million for Amtrak operating costs and $500 million for infrastructure needs.

The House and Senate have both passed transportation spending bills for fiscal 2008 directing about $1.4 billion to Amtrak.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

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