WASHINGTON (AP) — Money-losing Amtrak got a vote of confidence from the Senate on Tuesday with approval of a $11.4 billion bill to keep the national passenger railway running over the next six years.
The bill, passed 70-22, also outlines steps to shrink Amtrak's reliance on taxpayer dollars, with a goal of cutting operating costs by 40 percent over six years.
That 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 moneymaking 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 that there's 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 Lautenberg, D-N.J. "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 year 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 secretary to try to refinance Amtrak's $3 billion in outstanding 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.
On Tuesday the Senate defeated, 67-24, a proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to eventually compel the discontinuing of food service on lines that rely on subsidies to cover losses on those services. Food service subsidies have reached $250 million over the past three years, he said, asking whether "we should be subsidizing somebody's beer and Three Musketeers on Amtrak when we don't do it anywhere else."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., co-sponsor of the bill, argued that "if you wipe out food service, you might as well terminate the route." He said he'd "learned from past experience: Don't mess with people's stomachs."
The administration, in its statement, made clear that it will not fund Amtrak at the $11.4 billion level authorized under the legislation. That money includes $3.3 billion for operations, $4.9 billion for capital grants, $1.4 billion for a new state grant program and $1.8 billion for debt repayment over the six-year period.
In its budget request for the fiscal year that started on 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 next goes to the House for consideration.
The bill is S. 294.