At today’s hearing on Amtrak’s budget proposal, the nation’s rail leaders met with a different kind of Congressional leadership than in it has in recent years. The vibe of the meeting was significantly less combative — with the primary exception being Rep. John Mica’s reprise of his famous role as Amtrak villain. Here are some highlights:
Budget request. First, the topline numbers [PDF]: Amtrak made its formal budget request to Congress two weeks ago, asking for $373 million in operating support – 17 percent less than it requested in 2013 – and $2.065 billion in capital support. It needs less operating support now because skyrocketing ridership is allowing Amtrak to cover more and more – 88 percent this year — of its operating costs through ticket sales.
Dedicated funding. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo and Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman advocated for rail’s inclusion in a dedicated “transportation trust fund.” They said that would make rail funding more stable and predictable and help bring rail into parity with other modes. Recent history shows that a dedicated fund hasn’t saved highways and transit from severe uncertainty and piecemeal funding. The real solution, as always, is to increase revenues to stabilize the trust fund.
The peace dividend. Republicans can be forgiven for dismissing it as a gimmick, but the administration continues to insist that the “savings” from the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan can help pay for infrastructure. The plan, as Szabo laid it out, is to dedicate $300 billion of the $600 billion “savings” to deficit reduction, then spend $214 billion to fully fund highways and transit through 2020, and then add rail into the equation with a $40 billion infusion.
Rural service. “Aviation is leaving these rural communities, inter-city buses are leaving these rural communities, and rural America has to have some transportation options,” Administrator Szabo told Rail Subcommittee Chair Jeff Denham (R-CA). Denham agreed and said he would look into holding a hearing to focus exclusively on mobility options in rural America. (Szabo also noted that inter-city buses, which often get praised for not requiring public support, benefit from billions of dollars in highway subsidies.)