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Commerce Committee passes Amtrak emergency aid bill

In a measure that seemed to move through the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee faster than Amtrak Acela moves through the Baltimore and Potomac tunnel, Senators Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) brought Amtrak a step closer to receiving $1.77 billion in emergency assistance.

Introduced to the Senate Oct. 15, Rail Security Act of 2001 (S. 1550) was unanimously approved by Commerce Committee members just two days later.

In his testimony before the committee, Sen. McCain -- a frequent and vocal Amtrak critic — assured that "if this bill turns into another taxpayer bailout for Amtrak disguised as an ‘emergency needs’ or ‘security’ bill, it will not be allowed to be brought before the full Senate for debate or approval in the near future."

Should the full Senate approve S. 1550, Amtrak would receive $515 million for security upgrades, including hiring and training additional police officers, canine-assisted security units, surveillance equipment and reimbursement for extraordinary security-related costs related to the Sept. 11 attacks. That’s up from the $471 million Amtrak requested as a portion of its own $3.2 billion request. However, S. 1550 stipulates that 50 percent of this portion must be spent outside the Northeast Corridor.

When it comes to tunnel life-safety projects in New York City, and tunnel rehabilitation in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore (likely including the Civil War-era Baltimore and Potomac tunnel), Amtrak and the senators are in full agreement as to the $998 million price tag.

S. 1550 also would allocate $254 million to increase accessibility of New York’s Penn Station for safety and emergency response situations, renovations to the Thames and Niantic bridges in Connecticut, and an advanced civil speed enforcement radio system in high-speed territory. Amtrak’s request did not specify this as a separate request.

However, Amtrak’s $3.2 billion request includes $949 for Northeast Corridor capital expenses, plus $656 million to purchase additional equipment to meet increased demand. These funds are not included in S. 1550.

The bill also stipulates that the Secretary of Transportation must approve plans for security upgrades and projects before money is dispersed, and Amtrak must submit requested information to ensure full accountability for the obligation or expenditure of appropriated funds. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General would submit within 60 days a report identifying any overlap between covered projects and those already included in Amtrak’s 20-year plan, and review the plans to ensure they’re consistent with the act’s purposes.

Additional security measures would permit railroad officers to enforce laws on other railroads’ properties. Currently, officers may enforce only those laws protecting their own employer’s operations. Within 180 days of enactment, the Secretary, in consultation with Federal Railroad Administration’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee, would review existing rail regulations and identify potential revisions.

Both sponsoring senators introduced legislation last week regarding rail security, and from which S. 1550 evolved. S. 1528, which McCain and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introduced to the Senate, included S. 1550 provisions — but also would establish criminal sanctions for violent attacks against railroads, railroad employees and railroad passengers.

Hollings’ S. 1530 (RAIL-21) would, among other funding-related issues, repeal Amtrak’s operational self-sufficiency mandate. Hollings assured the Commerce Committee he plans to hold a hearing on RAIL-21 next week.

But both senators badly wanted to keep this bill centered on emergency security and safety assistance for Amtrak. In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, "travelers flocked to Amtrak," said Hollings, "and Amtrak kept our American citizens moving."

"The situation not only proved that Amtrak works — but that Amtrak is a critical part of our transportation infrastructure during a national emergency," he said.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 10/17/2001