Amtrak gets $1.3 billion from stimulus, hopes for more

By Gus Bode

The economic stimulus package included $9.3 billion for rail transportation, with $1.3 billion for Amtrak, but a spokesman for Amtrak said he hopes for some of the remaining $8 billion.

Congress designated that money for the development of high-speed and intercity rail systems. The U.S. Department of Transportation has not allocated that money, but Cliff Black, chief of corporate communications for Amtrak, said he hoped some of the money could be used to improve existing rail lines.

‘High-speed passenger rail is an important investment for the country to make,’ Black said. ‘(The $9.3 billion for rail transportation) is a recognition by the government that significant investment in passenger rail is important.’

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Of the more than $1 billion given to Amtrak in the stimulus enacted Monday, $450 million must go toward enhancing security, Black said.

‘We have not yet identified which capital projects will qualify for the remaining $850 million,’ Black said.

Fern Tribbey, 56, of Chicago, said smaller items, such as more employees to assist customers and keep the facilities clean should be priorities before construction, renovation and expansion.

‘My husband right now is reliant on some assistance and there was no one there to help him,’ Tribbey said. ‘In Chicago we asked and they delivered everything.’

Otherwise, she said she was satisfied with Amtrak as it is.

The Federal Railroad Administration will regulate how Amtrak spends both portions of the money, Black said. The programs must begin within 30 days of the enactment, he said.

‘While we do have in place a comprehensive list of projects that are shovel-ready, we are not yet prepared to release that list until it has been reviewed by the FRA,’ Black said.

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He said the projects on the list are capital projects, such as building, construction and repair of facilities and train equipment.

Steve Tribbey, 51, of Chicago, said the state’s roadways concern him more than its railways, but the money is more effectively spent at Amtrak.

‘When I look at the ridiculous shape of the paved roads in the state … it seems like those companies do a half-assed job so that they’re guaranteed a job next year,’ Tribbey said. ‘I’d rather have them get rid of their funding and give to Amtrak because it seems like it’s a lot easier to maintain and it’s consistent.’

Although Amtrak has not seen profits in roughly 38 years, Black said the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Aviation Administration have seen similar patterns. He said the money represents a bold step forward in public policy to begin the process of funding passenger rail at a level that would make it a more vital part of transportation nationwide.

Congress designated $27.5 billion for highway investments and $1.3 billion for investments in the country’s air transportation system.

‘Critics point to Amtrak’s failure to earn a profit as a reason for eliminating it or not funding it,’ he said. ‘Amtrak was created because the private sector could not earn a profit running passenger trains and they abandoned the service.’

Congress designated $48 billion of the $787 billion economic stimulus package to transportation spending. Claren Einfeldt, a member of the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the money would have been better spent elsewhere.

‘I’d rather see (the money) go to education because (Amtrak) was fine, aside from the smelly bathroom,’ Einfeldt said.

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