WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is again asking Congress to slash federal aid to the nation's passenger railroad by cutting funding for Amtrak, including its network in the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Washington to Boston, by more than half.
Trump's proposed 2021 budget delivered to Congress on Monday includes reductions in funding to the U.S.'s busiest rail corridor, the Northeast, to $325 million from $700 million. Funding for Amtrak's long-distance trains would decrease to $611 million from $1.3 billion under the plan, which intends to phase out aid for long-distance service.
The White House's budget also proposes billions in other transportation cuts, including a 13 percent reduction in discretionary spending on trains, airports, ports and other areas areas. It also cuts more than $2 billion in highway infrastructure funds and more than $500 million in transit grants.
The White House touts the Amtrak cuts as a route to reform the passenger railroad to provide better service, focusing on the more profitable short-distance intercity routes while ditching the system's long distance trains across the continental U.S.
"Long distance routes continually underperform, suffering from low ridership and large operating losses of roughly half a billion dollars annually," the White House's budget documents say. "Simply put, Amtrak trains inadequately serve many rural markets while not serving many growing metropolitan areas at all."
But the budget proposal received a cold reception from Democratic congressional leaders and nonprofit organizations and labor unions that advocate for more passenger rail. It prompted groups to launch new efforts to push for more rail funding and the preservation of Amtrak's long distance network.
Trump budgets have repeatedly targeted Amtrak, but if history holds the proposal has little chance of winning approval from the House.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the budget puts "critical routes at risk" and sends "Amtrak into a downward spiral."
Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said the cuts would hit rural areas particularly hard. The long-distance routes provide the only form of passenger train travel in many communities across the continental U.S., reaching 140 million Americans across 23 states, he said.
"Trump's base is rural, where Amtrak provides a very essential service that the free market is not going to provide," Jean-Gail said. "But his message is 'screw you the rural stations'."
"It would be a huge blow to passenger train in the United States if this was implement," Jeans-Gail said of Trump's budget. "But we have successfully beaten this in the last three years and I have a high degree of confidence we will be able to do the same thing this year."
The Transportation Trades Department, a coalition of 33 labor unions representing transportation workers said it is joining efforts "in pushing back on this absurd idea."
"Amtrak has become a vital lifeline to home, work, and school for millions of Americans. For some rural communities, Amtrak's national network is the only public transportation option available," the group tweeted Tuesday.
The Passenger Rail Association said it expects Congress to once again ignore Trump's request to slash Amtrak funding, but said it will "not take this attack lying down."
The group is mobilizing a campaign to push back against Trump's proposal and seek a funding increase for the railroad. It also plans to use the surface transportation reauthorization process this year to urge Congress to make the existing service map statutory as the bare required minimum passenger service in the network.
"So we don't have to spend every year arguing about whether it should exist," Jean-Gail said. "We should talk about how we can build service out along urban corridors where it makes sense and provide this base level of service in perpetuity."
The administration has said that Amtrak should focus on improving its Northeast Corridor service, where it serves more densely populated areas between Washington and Boston. But critics say Trump's stance is hypocritical since his administration has stalled funding on a critical infrastructure project along the route that would improve service and facilitate higher speed trains.
Trump has sparred with Democratic lawmakers over a $13-billion project to rebuild and repair tunnels and bridges in the New York City area.
In budget documents released Monday, the White House said restructuring the Amtrak system could result in better service at a lower cost, "by focusing trains on better-performing routes, while providing robust intercity bus service connections."
Besides the $936 million in direct grants to Amtrak, the budget includes $550 million in transitional grants for states and Amtrak to begin the restructuring process. The White House said the subsidy to Amtrak's national network would be significantly reduced over time "as Amtrak is able to right-size its network."
Amtrak carried a record 32.5 million passengers last year, with record growth in the Northeast Corridor and state-supported lines. Total operating revenue rose to $3.3 billion, up 3.6 percent from the previous year, the company said. It's projected that in 2020, the railroad will have positive earnings for the first time in its history.
Its latest ridership report reflects a year-over-year increase of 800,000 passengers, Amtrak's highest. Ridership for all Northeast Corridor services reached 12.5 million, an increase of 3.3 percent from 2018. State supported routes saw a 2.4 percent increase, reaching 15.4 million passengers. Amtrak's 15 long distance routes carried 4.5 million passengers last year, an increase of less than 1 percent.
This article was written by Luz Lazo, a reporter for The Washington Post.