Senate Democrats press for Amtrak funding increase

Reuters News
Posted: May 21, 2015 4:46 PM

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democrats from the Northeast, where the Amtrak rail service is considered essential, vowed on Thursday, in the wake of a deadly train crash, to fight Republican budget cuts for the passenger line, while acknowledging more funding would be hard to win.

Strict spending caps on the U.S. budget would have to be eased, but Senator Charles Schumer and eight other Democrats from the region said they would press for Amtrak to be funded at the $2.45 billion level requested by President Barack Obama.

One day after an Amtrak train derailed on May 12 near Philadelphia, killing eight passengers, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a $1.14 billion Amtrak budget, a $252 million cut from fiscal 2015.

"Philadelphia was preventable and it was predictable," Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said at a news conference.

"For the Congress to say to Amtrak that we're cutting below last year's expenditures is like forcing a family to choose between food and medicine."

Republicans have said they did not cut Amtrak safety or operations funds, and capital spending reductions were needed to stay within automatic "sequester" budget constraints agreed under a 2011 deal to reduce the federal deficit.

The Democrats said Amtrak needs $21 billion to bring the Washington-to-Boston rail corridor into good repair, including upgrading a narrow tunnel dug in 1873 under Baltimore, and century-old bridges and tunnels connecting New Jersey and New York City.

Schumer offered no plan for lifting the sequester, which is expected to hold federal agency spending, including Amtrak, and the military flat next year at about 2006 levels.

The Democratic senators also said they were pressing the Federal Communications Commission to quickly grant Amtrak access to radio frequencies needed to fully deploy automated braking technology that could have prevented the Philadelphia crash.

The bandwidth is needed to run the "positive train control" system, which was not operational in the area of the crash. The senators blamed the FCC for delays in approving Amtrak's purchase of spectrum.

"If the FCC fails to address this issue of spectrum more effectively, Congress will have to act," Blumenthal said.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh)