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GOP Seeks Massive Cuts to Amtrak

More hurdles ahead for rail transit in FY24 after debt ceiling scare.

12:00 AM EDT on July 17, 2023

Gersh Kuntzman

Amtrak funding seemed safe when President Biden and Speaker McCarthy eked out an 11th-hour debt ceiling deal. But just over a month later, the national rail system and other federally funded train programs are back in jeopardy with mere days left in session before Congress goes on recess. 

The debt ceiling agreement suspended the government’s borrowing limit through 2025, but it stipulated that Congress pass its spending bills before the end of the fiscal year. One proviso in the agreement imposes an automatic one-percent cut on all spending if lawmakers can’t meet the deadline. The GOP House Transit, Housing, and Urban Development subcommittee on appropirtions proposed a budget this week that would cut Amtrak funding by 64 percent from last year —with a 92 percent cut to the Northeast Corridor, which advocates say would hobble rail service across the country. With the fiscal year set to end on Sept. 30, that leaves little time for negotiation. 

"These House proposals are simultaneously infuriating and unserious,” Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews said in an email. “The U.S. DOT is overseeing the most transformational investment in passenger rail infrastructure nationwide in more than half a century, and we're seeing unprecedented interest and excitement about adding and upgrading passenger rail service from cities and towns all across America. And yet the House would simply ignore this broadly popular effort to score cheap political points while jeopardizing the nearly $10 billion our national passenger rail network contributes to the country's GDP every year.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 with support from 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 in the House, directing $66 billion to Amtrak alone and generating the bulk of the rail boom Mathews referred to. The House subcommittee’s FY24 budget cuts Amtrak spending to 24 percent of what the IIJA authorized, “killing the passenger rail renaissance launched by the IIJA before it has a chance to get started” RPA wrote in a press release Wednesday. 

The budget does not explicitly refer to Amtrak as wasteful. Rather, the bulk of the language is about cutting government staff and defeating woke-ism, and includes such GOP priorities as banning commercial flights to Cuba, as well as prohibiting the use of federal funds for government employee and contractor training programs containing “Critical Race Theory.” It would also bar federal funding for California High Speed Rail, eliminate overtime costs in excess of $35,000 for any Amtrak employee, and prohibit any reduction in the number of uniformed Amtrak Police Officers below May 2019 staffing levels.

"To me, this is not an effort at governing,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, RPA’s Vice President of Government Affairs. “[House Republicans] aren’t concerned with meeting the needs of the American public and the 500-plus towns on the Amtrak network that depend on it, especially in rural America. They worked backwards from a number they wanted to tout in their own caucus, and so I expect the outrage at this to be considerable. We are helping to raise the alarm with governors, state DOTs, mayors. There will be a reaction. I think the House is going to try and move very quickly before that reaction hardens into an organized opposition.”

Capital projects aside, Amtrak service in those 500-plus towns might be where this proposed budget would strike hardest. The agency’s day-to-day operations still have to be funded via the annual budget process, meaning a 64-percent cut from last year would likely result in fewer trains, longer delays, and Amtrak’s version of the transit fiscal cliff.

“What I’m hearing from Amtrak is that [the proposed budget] wouldn’t cover their mandatory things like debt service, salaries for contract employees, and the match for the grants that they have already secured through the [Federal Railroad Administration],” Jeans-Gail said. “It is hard to know exactly what it would do because we are still waiting to hear from Amtrak directly about gaming out this budget, … but we did ask, ‘Is this based on some number that was back of the envelope math that House Republican appropriators did that figured this was the bare minimum?' Amtrak’s answer was ‘no.’ To me, what that says is they had some change left over after funding some programs and said, ‘'Here, Amtrak, you get the scraps.'"

Jeans-Gail expects the proposed budget to make it through a committee vote and onto the House floor, but he sees paths forward. The Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up its proposed budget next week, and Jeans-Gail thinks “we’re going to see a much better bill, and we support that.”

Still, Jeans-Gail sees meeting in the middle as a bad deal for Amtrak. 

“We want to strengthen the bipartisan coalition for Amtrak in the Senate and do what we can to oppose this bill in the House so that when House leadership and Senate leadership get together in September, the Senate has a mandate and the House doesn’t,” Jeans-Gail said. “We are hoping to stiffen the spines of members of Congress that voted for the IIJA … that’s why we are going to do our best to let members of the House Republican Caucus know that this is an extremely unpopular proposal.”

Jeans-Gail and other advocates say that constituents still have time to reach out to their elected representatives before the recess. The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up the THUD budget on Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee will do the same for its bill on Thursday. 

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