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House funds Amtrak’s status quo but punts on emergency funding

September 23, 2020

On September 22, the U.S. House passed legislation that extends the 2015 FAST Act for a year. It will also fund Amtrak through Dec. 11, based on a prorated share of its 2020 budget, which means roughly $138 million for the Northeast Corridor and $256 million for the national network trains.

Aside from eliminating the requirement that Amtrak’s food and beverage service turn a profit, the bill does little to change Amtrak’s status quo.

Without new provisions by the Senate—which is expected to pass the bill easily—all but one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains will be reduced from daily service to three times a week by late October. In June, a bipartisan group of senators—9 Republicans and 7 Democrats—pushed back on Amtrak’s plans to cut service on the long-distance lines.

Congress has not yet responded to requests for emergency funding from Amtrak, including a request for $1.5 billion for the Northeast Corridor trains. Amtrak’s CEO, William Flynn, testified recently that the loss of ridership and revenue during the pandemic would result in “drastic measures” unless Congress approves nearly $5 billion in relief by Oct. 1.

A second stimulus package is now Amtrak’s best hope for emergency relief and for restoring daily service on the long-distance routes. Democrats in the House have begun working on a $2.4 trillion stimulus bill. Its prospects in the Senate are uncertain, but the legislation will likely include some level of emergency funding for Amtrak.

With the extension of status-quo funding through Dec. 11, Amtrak’s FY 2021 budget will not be set until Congress’s November session at the earliest.