Hutchinson seeking $60 billion for Amtrak
Several Senate Republicans have proposed an Amtrak funding and restructuring bill that would give the railroad a $60-billion infusion over six years for capital and operating expenses. They criticized the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s recent Amtrak bill, which takes a different approach.

The latest bill, introduced July 30 by Senate surface transportation subcommittee Chairman Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), would authorize $12 billion over six years in federal aid for Amtrak operations and $48 billion in private, but tax-exempt, bonds for capital improvements.

The Hutchison measure competes with DOT’s plan, which emphasizes turning operations over to states.

The Hutchison bill’s backers emphasize that they want Amtrak to continue as a national system. "Our motto is: national or nothing," says Hutchison. "We are not going to continue to support just a Northeast Corridor for Amtrak."

Hutchison says 80% of the bond proceeds would go for improvements outside the Northeast Corridor. One example of capital projects, she says, would be bypasses to let passenger trains avoid congested freight rail bottlenecks.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a co-sponsor of the legislation, says that getting the bill passed won’t be easy, noting that with its $60-billion price tag, "You are talking about real money."

Lott slammed the DOT legislation as "a guarantee to fail," and "a total non-starter." Hutchison was more measured, but said that DOT’s proposal of "turning [Amtrak] over to the states, I think, will doom [the DOT bill] to failure."

The DOT proposal, announced July 28, would divide into three components: a private company to operate trains under contract to states or multi-state organizations; another private company to maintain the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor track; and a government corporation that would continue to hold Amtrak’s rights to run trains over track owned by freight railroads outside the Corridor.

Hutchison concedes that commerce committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) prefers the DOT bill to hers, but says McCain also likes many of her bill’s elements.