- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Amtrak’s inspector general is warning that the passenger rail company is insufficiently prepared to deal with the influx of new money coming from President Biden‘s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law.

In a new audit released Tuesday, Amtrak Inspector General Kevin Winters determined that the company had neither the proper workforce nor accountability measures to handle the $66 billion in additional funding it will receive from the legislation.

“Safe operations and a safe workplace will remain the cornerstone of the company’s success,” Mr. Winters wrote. “Taken as a whole, however, the sheer size of the [infrastructrure] funding and requirements could strain the company’s ability to manage its current operations while concurrently planning and managing a long-term multibillion-dollar infrastructure portfolio.”

The inspector general highlighted several high-profile challenges facing Amtrak as it gets ready to accept all of the new money Mr. Biden is pouring into the company.

Most notably, Amtrak’s business and financial management systems are “outdated and do not provide timely and high-quality information.” This inefficiency, coupled with inadequate transparency measures, could be a lucrative target for fraud, waste and abuse.

“If history is any indicator of the future, funding provided by the [infrastructure law] — like other large spending bills — will prove to be a lucrative target for fraudsters and others seeking to exploit weak internal controls,” Mr. Winters wrote.

Similarly, the inspector general noted prior deficiencies with Amtrak’s project management and communications infrastructure. This includes everything from ensuring projects do not go over budget to coordinating with federal and state partners on maintenance and expansion of passenger routes.

The inspector general also notes that Amtrak lacks the high-skilled workforce needed to manage all of the new money and the projects coming in from the infrastructure bill. While the agency plans to boost hiring by 21% this year, including more than 750 individuals at the manager level, many of the positions require skills that are in demand across the labor market.

“In addition to attracting and hiring new employees, the company knows it will have the challenge of training them and making sure they are certified to repair and maintain the company’s infrastructure and equipment,” wrote Mr. Winters. “Some of these training and certification efforts can take as long as two years, which will dictate how quickly the company can deploy some new employees onto [infrastructre] projects.”

The audit comes as money from Mr. Biden‘s infrastructure bill, which passed late last year, is finally beginning to work its way through the federal bureaucracy. Amtrak’s share will be the largest appropriation for the company since its founding.

Republican lawmakers, many of whom opposed the infrastructure bill, note that Amtrak has a long history of financial mismanagement and insolvency. Not only has the company often been susceptible to waste and fraud, but a large number of its passenger lines fail to break a profit.

“Amtrak has proven once again that their failed business is a money pit which only aims to serve coastal metropolitan areas while rural states like Arkansas are stuck footing the bill for their steep bailout fees,” said Rep. Rick Crawford, an Arkansas Republican and senior member of the House Transportation Committee. “Clearly the Democrats’ solution of funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to Amtrak is not the solution to their deep-rooted problems.”

• Haris Alic can be reached at halic@washingtontimes.com.

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