The House has approved a measure to authorize $7.2 billion over four years for Amtrak and has a focus on the railroad’s busy Northeast Corridor. It also aims to spark more private investment around Amtrak's stations and along its rights-of-way.
The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act (PRRIA), which the House passed on March 4 on a 316-101 vote, includes $5.8 billion for Amtrak capital expenses, operations and debt-repayment, or an average of $1.45 billion per year. Amtrak's fiscal 2015 appropriation for those activities is $1.39 billion.
The bill sets up two new budget accounts: one for the Northeast Corridor, which would receive $1.9 billion of the $5.8 billion, and the other for the “National Network,” which would get $3.9 billion.
The measure also includes $1.2 billion over four years in capital grants to states for rail projects. To receive the grants, states would be required to put up at least 50% of a project’s cost. All of the authorizations are subject to annual appropriations.
Before approving the bill, the House rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) that would have deleted the bill’s Amtrak authorizations.
To stimulate Northeast Corridor improvements, the bill would require Amtrak to spend all of the operating profits on that line on the corridor.
The legislation aims to increase use of the Federal Railroad Administration’s largely untapped Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan program, which provides low-interest loans and loan guarantees for rail projects. For example, the bill sets a deadline for loan approvals and would give states more flexibility in the types of collateral they use for the loans. It also carves out 40% of the rail loan program’s capacity for Northeast Corridor projects.
The measure would require Amtrak to study development opportunities around its stations and seek proposals from private firms, such as telecommunications or energy distribution companies, to develop right-of-way that it owns, such as most of the Northeast Corridor. I
In addition, the bill has provisions to expedite rail projects’ delivery—for example, by requiring multiple agencies’ reviews to be carried out concurrently instead of one after another.
It also has language barring the U.S. Dept. of Transportation from obligating grants of $1 billion or more for high-speed passenger rail programs unless the local sponsoring agency can show it has nonfederal funds committee and that the aid will produce a useable rail segment.
The legislation is similar to a proposal that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee cleared last September.
Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement that the new measure “will result in cutting waste, strengthening our infrastructure and providing better, mores cost-effective passenger rail service for our nation’s transportation system.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the committee’s top Democrat, added, “In every region of the country, passenger rail investments boost local economies and create thousands of family-wage construction, engineering and manufacturing jobs.”
The next step would be action in the Senate, where an Amtrak reauthorization proposal has not yet been introduced.
Frederick Hill, a Senate commerce committee spokesman, said via email that the committee “looks forward to working with the House on a wide range of rail issues including passenger service, setting an attainable deadline for Positive Train Control and a reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Board.”
Amtrak said in a statement: “We appreciate the good work and strong bipartisan support of the House in passing [PRRIA]. Amtrak’s continued ridership growth clearly demonstrates the need and demand for passenger rail and passage of this bill will help keep America moving in the coming years.”
Story changed on March 10 to correct the bill's funding levels.