Thursday, March 28, 2013

Amtrak emphasizes capital in FY14 request

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Amtrak is seeking $2.1 billion in capital funding for fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1, to obtain more passenger rail cars and continue its momentum in improving infrastructure.

The intercity passenger rail carrier made its request Wednesday in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, an ardent Amtrak supporter, and to House Speaker John Boehner, somewhat less enamored of passenger rail's worth.

The capital funds request is more than twice the $905 million Amtrak received for the current fiscal year, with that number much higher than the average in Amtrak's 42-year history.

"If we truly want to realize our vision of what rail can offer America, in terms of real mobility improvements and rational modal choices, policy decisions must be made and funding provided to match them," Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman said in a statement. "These are big decisions, and will require bold thinking, but they will deliver value for the money."

Observers note Amtrak also requested just $373 million in operating support for FY14, down from $443 million in FY13, reflecting the railroad's continuing cost recovery for operating expenses. Amtrak notched a cost-recovery ratio of 88% in FY12, aided by rising ridership and by increased financial support from state governments for certain routes.

Such improvement hasn't stopped perennial critics such as Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) from once more labeling Amtrak "a Soviet-style passenger rail system" in recent days.

Amtrak was founded in 1971 as a "for profit" corporation, with the result that many in Congress over the decades have demanded Amtrak become "self-supporting" and cover 100% of its operating costs—a goal few if any national passenger rail systems have reached.

Indeed, though nation-to-nation comparison is fraught with variables, Amtrak's cost-recovery ratio for FY12 compares favorably with vaunted Swiss Federal Railways' FY 11 ratio of 81%.