Amtrak Vice-President for Government Affairs and Corporate Communications, Joe McHugh, spoke to VRPI at their quarterly meeting in April at the Richmond Retail Merchants Association Building. His speech and powerpoint presentation provided rich insights into the relationship between Amtrak and Congress and the continuing challenges of funding and reauthorization that Amtrak faces.
Improvements at Amtrak
McHugh presented data showing how Amtrak's ridership has increased, its federal subsidies have decreased, and operating losses and debt have been brought under control during the decade between 2004 and 2014, improvements that have changed the public's perception and altered the political realities for Amtrak.
Amtrak has operated under a series of continuing resolutions, rather than reauthorizations, during 25 of the past 28 years, while gridlock in Congress has stalled the reauthorization of every major transportation funding bill since the early 1990's. The Federal Highway Trust Fund has been extended 25 times since 2003, leaving the nation with flat highway funding that has not increased in 12 years.
Discussing recent bipartisan initiatives in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to draft and pass HB 749, McHugh said it was is the best bipartisan bill that could have come from the committee, laying the groundwork for future infrastructure spending and giving the Senate a good foundation on which to build.
Improved Relationships with Congress
McHugh said that in general, Amtrak's relationship with Congress has improved. Looking at the near-term, he expects Congress to give Amtrak better funding flexibility, continue to emphasize oversight and accountability as well as a strong role for the states, and mandate improvements in high visibility areas such as Food and Beverage. He does not anticipate radical experimentation such as separating the NEC from the rest of the Amtrak system, privatizing Amtrak or abolishing federal funding authorization. On the other hand, neither does he expect dramatic increases in funding for Amtrak in the near future. McHugh showed graphically how passenger rail has received only a small fraction of the federal transportation budget, compared to funding for other modalities, since Amtrak was established in 1971.