Tomorrow, the House Transportation Committee will consider a bill that changes the nation’s policies on passenger rail. The proposal, while it includes some cuts, is a departure from the senseless vendetta many House Republicans have waged against Amtrak in the past. The National Association of Railroad Passengers, NARP, says the plan contains “commonsense regulatory and governance reforms.”
In an encouraging act of bipartisanship, the bill was crafted and introduced jointly by Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA), Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV), and the chair and ranking member of the rail subcommittee, Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Corrine Brown (D-FL). You can read the bill summary here [PDF] and the full text here [PDF].
The Republicans’ talking point that the House bill cuts Amtrak funding by 40 percent is being widely reported, but the reality isn’t so draconian. The bill does reduce the amount authorized for Amtrak, but Congress wasn’t appropriating nearly that much in recent years anyway. Congress was authorized to spend $1.96 billion on Amtrak in 2013, for instance, but the House only appropriated $1.41 billion. The authorized amount in the PRRIA bill is actually a slight increase over what Amtrak got in 2013.
The bill stops short of pushing for full privatization of the Northeast Corridor, the main part of the network that turns a profit, which Shuster and Amtrak Hater-in-Chief John Mica had pushed for previously. It does further separate the Northeast Corridor from the rest of the system, requiring Amtrak to reinvest NEC profits back into the NEC. House Republicans say the idea is to “eliminate Amtrak’s black-box accounting,” in which Amtrak (quite transparently, I may add) subsidizes money-losing long-distance service with the profits from the NEC.
Meanwhile, the bill continues the very long-distance services that come under constant fire from the GOP for inefficiency. After all, key GOP constituencies live in rural areas whose only long-distance transportation option may be Amtrak. Brookings has recommended that Congress take an honest look at the costs and benefits of these routes, but so far Congress has preferred to play politics instead.