The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a $7-billion, four-year bill that would map out major changes in Amtrak funding.

The bill, the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, or PRRIA, which the committee cleared on Sept. 17, seeks to boost private-sector financing for projects around Amtrak stations and also would steer more money to Amtrak's mainstay Northeast Corridor. [Text of draft bill.]

But with little time left in the current congressional session and no comparable Senate measure introduced yet, no passenger-rail legislation is likely to be enacted this year.

Still, House transportation committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), a prime author of the PRRIA measure, told reporters after the vote, "We thought it was a good thing to move it through now." 

Shuster acknowledges that floor time is unlikely this year for a full House vote on the rail bill. But he adds that the measure is now "teed up" for further action in 2015.

The bill, introduced on Sept. 11, has many bipartisan backers, including Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the transportation panel's top Democrat. [Committee's 12-page bill summary.]The measure swept through the committee on a unanimous voice vote.

Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president, said on Sept. 12, "We're very pleased to see the committee release a PRRIA bill. It's great that it's a bipartisan bill."

An aide to Senate commerce committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said on Sept. 12 via email, "The chairman is pleased to see that the House is moving forward on a passenger rail bill. Amtrak is a vital part of our national transportation system and remains an important issue to Senator Rockefeller and the committee."

The commerce committee has jurisdiction in the Senate over railroad issues

The staffer adds that Rockefeller "plans to take a deeper look at the House bill as the Senate continues its work to move a passenger-rail and rail-safety bill."

According to the House committee, the bill would authorize about $1.4 billion for Amtrak in fiscal 2015, the proposed measure's first year. That's about equal to Amtrak's enacted appropriations for 2014.

But the $1.4 billion is 38% below the 2013 figures in the previous Amtrak authorization statute, the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.[Text of 2008 law (see Division B for Amtrak provisions).]

In a summary of the new PRRIA, the House panel says the funding would require Amtrak "to plan based on real, constrained funding levels—not overly optimistic targets that will never materialize."

Key construction-related elements in the new bill include provisions to encourage Amtrak to capitalize more on its real-estate holdings. One section would direct Amtrak to study development opportunities for its stations by teaming with private firms. 

Another provision would mandate that Amtrak solicit proposals from private firms to develop rights-of-way that it owns.

In addition, the bill would seek to spark more interest in the Federal Railroad Administration's Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, or RRIF, which has lots of unused lending capacity.

TheRRIF program, established in 1998 and modified in the 2005 SAFETEA-LU statute, has a loan capacity of $35 billion. But its loan agreements executed since 2009 have totaled just $949 million.

The House committee contends that part of the problem is FRA's "slow, cumbersome approval process." The bill would set deadlines for the agency to approve loan applications.

Shuster has said repeatedly that the Boston-to-Washington, D.C., Northeast Corridor should be a main focus of U.S. passenger rail investment, and the bill has provisions aimed at doing just that.

For example, it would require Amtrak to use its profits from the corridor—which the committee says were about $400 million in 2013—on improvements along that route.

In addition, the measure would authorize $600 million over four years for a federal-state grant program for corridor projects. In order to get a federal grant, states and localities would have to match the federal amount, dollar-for-dollar, with their own funds.

The bill also carves out a 40% share of the RRIF loan program for the Northeast Corridor.

In another provision that would affect design and construction firms, the bill follows the models of the 2012 MAP-21 highway-transit law and this year's WRRDA water-resources statute, by including language to expedite Amtrak project approvals.

Asked about the bill, Amtrak said in a Sept. 11 statement, "We are reviewing the proposed legislation and look forward to working with Congress to enact a bill that addresses critical infrastructure needs, improves safety and enhances customer service and provides for greater financial efficiencies."

Amtrak's statement doesn't say this, but the railroad already has been moving in a couple of the areas that the new bill emphasizes. For example, Amtrak is the largest post-2009 borrower from the RRIF, with a $563-million loan in 2012.

On the development front,Amtrak on May 27 picked a teamled by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draw up a master plan for the area around its 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.

Amtrak said the planners "will aim to develop a future where the station is at the epicenter of a dynamic, urban neighborhood full of opportunities for community development, economic development and improved transportation connections."

The railroad is working with a large group of other key players, including the Brandywine Realty Trust, nearby Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, city and state officials and regional transit agencies.

Story corrected on Sept. 17: Profit on NE Corridor was $400 million in 2013. Story also updated with House committee vote.