Amtrak improvements stay on track after Senate steps in to save funding

Chicago projects would have lost money because of House Republican cuts that threatened to wipe away $1.57 billion in Amtrak funds for 2024.

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An Amtrak train bound for Chicago.

An Amtrak train bound for Chicago. Proposed cuts by House Republicans sought to cut 64% from the rail agency’s 2024 budget.

Sun-Times

Amtrak is now experiencing its best years since its 1971 formation, with plans to expand and improve routes while building new train stations and infrastructure.

But leave it to House Republicans — a surly bunch on an apparent mission to slash and burn anything that truly benefits the public good — to propose a 64% cut in federal Amtrak funding in next year’s transportation bill.

The cuts threaten to wipe away $1.57 billion in Amtrak funds, which would endanger Amtrak’s much-needed future expansion, and likely roll back the progress made over the last decade by the nation’s passenger rail service.

Efforts to improve Amtrak service in the Chicago region would be negatively impacted.

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But luckily, the Democratic-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee voted 29-0 last Thursday to recommend giving Amtrak a $2.45 billion slice of $3.4 billion targeted for the Federal Railroad Administration, effectively promising to restore what the House seeks to take away, if the GOP’s bill somehow becomes law.

So what’s the purpose of the cuts to Amtrak and other infrastructure spending outlined by the House subcommittee?

That old catchall excuse: to “rein in wasteful Washington spending and bureaucracy,” the House Transit, Housing, and Urban Development subcommittee on appropriations said in a statement.

The Senate should be commended for stepping in.

From Amtrak to crumbling bridges to pipes

Amtrak isn’t the House subcommittee’s only target. The panel last Tuesday voted 34-27 in favor of $8.35 billion in cuts across the transportation, infrastructure and housing spectrum, a move tantamount to cutting the legs out from under the bipartisan infrastructure law supported and signed by President Joe Biden in 2021.

In other words, the House GOP is trying to cut funding that the party largely supported two years ago.

If voted into law, the cuts would also reduce funds to important initiatives such as fixing crumbling bridges and upgrading pipes that carry the nation’s drinking water supply — infrastructure work on which the country is already decades behind.

In Chicago, Amtrak would have been looking at service cutbacks just as ridership is rebounding from the pandemic, officials said.

And key plans to improve Amtrak travel into and out of Union Station would have had to be tabled, such as an $850 million Chicago Hub Improvement Program aimed at making it easier for trains from southern routes to reach Union Station, eliminating the current slow crawl across the South Side to reach downtown.

Plans to ultimately provide direct access from McCormick Place to O’Hare would have had to be set aside also, according to Amtrak officials.

The measure passed by the Senate — the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill — seeks to keep these plans in play.

Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said the Senate committee’s decision to use its discretionary funds to address the House’s proposed cuts “will allow Amtrak to continue to operate and maintain America’s railroad by ensuring our long-distance trains connect rural towns to the national transportation network, making important investments in Northeast Corridor assets, and partnering with states on short-distance corridors.”

An ugly bill indeed

“I’ll be real honest with you: If you’re looking for a pretty bill, this is not it,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee said at a hearing on the bill two weeks ago.

“But with the nation’s debt in excess of $32 trillion and inflation at an unacceptable level, we have to do our jobs to rein in unnecessary federal spending,” he said.

Yes, but infrastructure cuts make the nation suffer. Amtrak, even as it rebounds, hardly holds a candle to Europe’s well-invested rail network — let alone Japan’s, which also has 200 mph trains.

How much more connected, competitive, and environmentally sustainable would this country be, if government’s impulse were to invest likewise and aim its budget ax elsewhere?

The aim to cut bridge repair is foolish and dangerous. Of the more than 617,000 bridges across the country, 42% are at least 50 years old, and it would take until 2071 to rehabilitate them all, according to a 2023 American Society of Civil Engineers study.

Besides, to us, the House subcommittee’s decision seems less like a call for fiscal responsibility and more like another example of the madness that’s often typical of today’s GOP, a party that routinely seems set on pulling away social benefits, no matter how smart, one by one — like a perverse game of Jenga — until the worst happens.

Cheers to the senators for putting up a roadblock.

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