WASHINGTON - Ten years after Amtrak vowed to end its reliance on government subsidies and become self-sufficient and four years after it failed to meet that goal, the Senate voted yesterday to increase the beleaguered passenger railroad's government funding and release it from a mandate that it turn a profit.
The new Senate bill would provide $11.4 billion for Amtrak over six years and would junk the decade-old goal that the rail line make enough money to cover operating costs, a longtime goal of fiscal conservatives.
Amtrak carried 25.8 million passengers last year, the highest ridership level ever, and recorded a 20 percent increase in the use of its high-speed Acela service between Washington and Boston. Still, the company needed $1.3 billion from Congress to cover its operating costs and capital losses last year on its 21,000-mile, coast-to-coast network.
Created by Congress in 1971 to provide intercity train travel, Amtrak has never recorded a profit while receiving more than $40 billion in federal funding since its inception. In 1997, under pressure from the Clinton administration and Republicans in Congress, Amtrak promised to pay its own bills by 2003 through cost cutting and introduction of the Acela.
Amtrak never met that deadline, and its executives have had to ask for government subsidies every year since then.
Sponsored by Senators Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, and Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, the bill passed yesterday would authorize about $10 billion to the railroad over six years and would also set up a $1.4 billion fund for matching grants to states that want to sponsor passenger trains. Several Amtrak trains, including the Maine-sponsored Downeaster route between Boston and Portland, are supported by individual states.
If President Bush signs it into law, the Lautenberg-Lott bill would represent a drastic change of Amtrak's fortunes under the new Democratic Congress. Republicans refused to pass a long-term authorization bill for the railroad after the old one expired in 2002, and the Bush administration has tried repeatedly to privatize parts of the corporation.
During yesterday's debate, the bill's supporters said it was unrealistic to expect Amtrak to survive without public subsidies. The infusion of money, they said, would allow the company to tackle a backlog of maintenance problems and equipment shortages, including about $5 billion in overdue upgrades to bridges and tunnels along the Northeast Corridor.
"The world has proven in country after country that you cannot operate passenger rail service at a profit," Lautenberg said during the debate. "It is kind of fallacious to even believe that it is possible. We tried it."
Cliff Black, a spokesman for Amtrak, said that the matching-grant proposal would level the wide budget disparities between Amtrak and the federal highway system.
"Amtrak supports the concept of federal matching funds for states to apply for to make capital investments in intercity passenger rail," he said. "They are able to do that for transit and highways, but currently are not able to do that with intercity passenger rail."
Critics of the bill, largely Republicans, attacked Democrats for releasing Amtrak from its self-sufficiency commitment. But that opposition fell flat during debate on the Senate floor.
"How much money should the taxpayers be asked to spend on a business that is losing money?" said Senator John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, who offered an amendment that would have forbidden Amtrak from running trains with government per-passenger subsidies that exceed $200. The amendment, which would have effectively shut down some long-distance routes, including the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Los Angeles, failed by a wide margin.
The House of Representatives must pass a similar law before the bill reaches Bush's desk for approval or veto.
"Every country in the world virtually that has rail service, rail passenger service, has some subsidy for it," said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. "We subsidize most transportation services in this country. I don't have a problem with doing that."