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House approves $1.2 billion for Amtrak

Ledyard King USA Today

WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to give Amtrak nearly $1.2 billion in federal aid next year – double what some Republican leaders wanted – and scuttled a plan that would have shut down its long-distance routes.

In doing so, lawmakers ignored White House demands that the rail service not get any subsidies until it acts more like a business.

The vote was a significant victory for the rail company, though the amount is short of the $1.8 billion it’s seeking from the federal government for 2006. The Amtrak money is part of a spending bill that will head to the Senate, which has traditionally been more supportive than the House of the national rail network.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black declined to say whether Amtrak could survive on $1.2 billion. “This is the beginning of a long process and we’re hopeful the Senate comes up with a bigger number,” he said.

House appropriations leaders had wanted to give Amtrak $550 million – half of what it got this year. That amount, Amtrak President David Gunn said, would have forced the rail system to shut down.

But the subsidy was substantially fattened by a bipartisan group of rail supporters, including a number of rural Republicans who said many of their constituents depend on the train.

Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, who called the lower figure “irresponsible,” said Congress has funded much more questionable ventures, such as $50,000 for a California tattoo removal program in 2002. “Amtrak is at least as important as removing tattoos.”

By a voice vote, the House approved the $1.2 billion amount with surprising ease.

House members also rejected, 269-152, a GOP proposal that would have prevented Amtrak from spending a penny on 14 cross-country and two regional lines that get relatively high subsidies per passenger.

Republican leaders have repeatedly targeted those lines that cost at least $30 per rider to run. They include the Sunset Limited ($304 per rider) from Orlando, Fla., to Los Angeles; the Lake Shore Limited ($141) from Boston to Chicago; and the Empire Builder ($109) from Chicago to Seattle.

House members such as Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said Amtrak needs to abandon unprofitable lines and concentrate on service in the Northeast corridor and other areas where intercity rail routes make sense.

“The current model is unsustainable. Amtrak refuses to take a good hard look at the facts,” he said. “They’d rather lobby Congress than reform the system.”

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