May 13, 2015 / 10:36 PM / 4 years ago

Amtrak crash throws spotlight on funding disputes; Republicans back cuts

WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Congress backed new spending cuts for Amtrak on Wednesday, just hours after a deadly accident, reviving an often rancorous debate over the public funding of America’s struggling passenger railroad.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives Appropriations Committee rejected a Democratic bid to provide Amtrak the full $2.45 billion in funds for the upcoming fiscal year requested in President Barack Obama’s budget.

Rail advocates say rising passenger numbers underline the need for greater federal and state funding to bring U.S. railways in line with Europe and Japan, while giving Amtrak more robust infrastructure and the muscle to compete with commercial airlines.

The cause of Tuesday’s crash has only begun to be investigated, but federal investigators said preliminary data showed the New York-bound train from Washington was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour (160 kph), twice the speed limit on that section of track, when it derailed outside Philadelphia, killing seven people and injuring more than 200.

In a previously scheduled vote, the House panel passed a Republican spending bill on a 30-21 party-line vote that would provide $1.14 billion for Amtrak, $262 million less than the level for the current fiscal year. The measure now goes to the full House for consideration.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the proposed Republican cuts unfortunate but said Congress had just started the appropriations process. Other Democrats blamed stingy budgets for compromising safety and said more funding would help pay for new train-control safety technology, track upgrades and new equipment.

Many conservatives have long argued for privatizing Amtrak, saying it has delivered poor service since its creation in 1971 while eating up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies and losing money on most of its routes.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, said the panel had to make tough funding choices to stay under statutory caps for all military and domestic agency spending put in place four years ago. He said he hopes Congress can negotiate alternate savings to lift the spending caps, “but until then, we have no choice but to move forward and we are,” Rogers said.

Amtrak operates a rail network serving more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces on more than 21,300 miles (34,300 km) of routes, with upwards of 30 million passengers per year. Amtrak reported record revenue of about $3.2 billion for fiscal year 2014, marking its fifth consecutive year of revenue growth, but still operated at a loss.

One leading Amtrak critic, Florida Republican congressman John Mica, said Congress is wary about giving Amtrak more money because of past missteps by the passenger rail service, including its inability to offer a full-scale high-speed travel after billions of dollars of investment in its Acela Express service from Washington to Boston via New York.

“Congress has been reluctant to give Amtrak the money because they squander it. They don’t have a plan that has milestones and can be seriously considered,” Mica told Reuters.

“We’re a Third World country when it comes to passenger rail and we need to look at the alternatives out there,” Mica added. “... The United States remains in the Dark Ages and Amtrak runs a Soviet-style operation.”

‘WE FAILED THEM’

Supporters contend Amtrak needs increased funding to address crumbling infrastructure and aging equipment. One of its biggest needs is the replacement of a narrow, leaky 142-year-old tunnel that twists under West Baltimore and is one of the biggest rail bottlenecks in the Northeast.

But there is no funding for the estimated $1.5 billion project, and no timeline for construction.

Democratic congressman Steve Israel of New York said Americans expect the government to adequately fund rail, road and air travel safety and that, with Tuesday night’s derailment, “We failed them.”

Republicans said it was unfair to suggest the crash was the result of a lack of funding for infrastructure improvements.

“Don’t use this tragedy in that way, it is beneath you,” Idaho Republican Mike Simpson said in reaction to Israel’s comments.

Democratic congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon said Amtrak has a massive backlog of repairs and maintenance, which at current levels of investment would take up to 30 years to get up to a state of good repair.

Although the investigation was still in its early stages, officials familiar with it said on Wednesday that the rail route where the Amtrak train left the track was not governed by an advanced safety technology meant to prevent high-speed derailments.

Analyst Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution think tank said Amtrak system’s infrastructure has never seen a comprehensive investment program.

“In the Northeast Corridor, there’s a need for basic rehabilitation and maintenance assistance. The system’s old and it’s reaching the end of its useful life, after limping along through patches,” Puentes said. (Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jason Szep and Frances Kerry)

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