Transportation Bill Requires Amtrak to Make Separate NEC Budget, Allow Pets on Trains

A compromise $305 billion federal transportation bill was agreed upon by House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday that contains a number of railroad-related measures.

The bill directs Amtrak to separate the budget for the Northeast Corridor from the rest of the railroad’s network budget and to establish a pilot program to allow passengers to bring a dog or cat aboard in much the same manner as carry-on luggage.

The legislation will fund highway and mass-transit projects for the next five years. It also contains a proviso that establishes a grant program for large freight projects.

The bill still needs to win approval from the House and Senate.

The two chambers earlier approved a stop-gap measure that extended the authority for transportation spending through Dec. 4.

In the event that the compromise bill encounters difficulties in either chamber, Congressional leaders have readied another temporary extension of transportation funding authority.

Supporters of the requirement that Amtrak break out a separate budget for the Northeast Corridor say that this will allow the railroad to invest more in the heavily traveled route between Boston and Washington, D.C.

They say that revenue from the NEC has been supporting the nationwide network, which Amtrak says loses money.

News accounts reported that the transportation bill does not name a revenue source for the Highway Trust Fund, whose revenue has eroded due to falling gasoline tax receipts prompted by more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Analysts said the pending transportation funding bill moves Congress further away from the principle that users of transportation systems should pay for their projects, a development that is expected to draw fire from some conservative groups.

Greg Cohen, president and chief executive of the American Highway Users Alliance, said he was troubled by the use of revenue from sources other than user taxes and fees.

“This program traditionally has been a user-pay program,” he said. “But the revenue coming in has not kept pace with inflation and with the cost of construction. So they found something . . .  but it is not a sustainable plan going forward.”

Among the steps that lawmakers are proposing taking to help pay for transportation spending are selling oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile, taking money from a Federal Reserve surplus account and reducing the dividend paid to banks with assets of at least $10 billion.

The bill also proposes to raise money by hiring outside debt collectors to collect unpaid taxes, to raise the fees paid by travelers who go through customs, and paying into the Highway Trust Fund the fines collected for motor-vehicle safety violations.

As for the pilot program to allow pets on board trains, the legislation mandates Amtrak to dedicate at least one car per train “in which a ticketed passenger may transport a domesticated cat or dog in the same manner as a carry-on baggage.”

The animals must be carried in a pet kennel that conforms with Amtrak regulations for carry-on bags. Passengers with pets will also have to pay a fee.

Supporters of the pets aboard the train program said that “no federal funds may be used to implement the pilot program.”

A year after implementing the program, Amtrak is to report to Congress on how the program played out.

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