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House Approves Amtrak Funding, Rewrites Rules To Allow Furry Riders

Amtrak conductor Michael Laubauskas talks on a radio Feb. 19 as his train departs Trenton, N.J., for Washington, D.C. The U.S. House passed an Amtrak funding bill Wednesday that splits Amtrak's high-ridership Northeast Corridor line that runs from Boston to Washington from the less profitable part of the system.

Instead of fighting like cats and dogs, Congress appears to be coming together for a change, and maybe it's because of our feline and canine friends.

In a rare bipartisan vote, the House today approved an Amtrak funding bill that will keep the trains running for another four years, and allow some pets to ride along on the intercity passenger rail service.

The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act passed on a vote of 316 to 101 (132 Republicans joined 184 Democrats in voting for the bill; 101 Republicans voted against). It essentially freezes spending for Amtrak at current levels — about $1.7 billion a year — for the next four years, and includes other reforms aimed at improving the railroad's fiscal performance.

That disappointed some of the passenger rail service's supporters, who had hoped for increased funding to help Amtrak improve its deteriorating infrastructure and update aging rail cars and equipment.

But many Republicans, backed by conservative groups including Club for Growth and Heritage Action, say the overall federal passenger rail subsidy of $7.2 billion is too much. The groups argue the spending reforms don't go far enough and warn this would be scored as a "key vote" in their influential ratings of conservative lawmakers.

Just before the bill passed, a GOP amendment to eliminate all federal subsidies for Amtrak failed on a vote of 147 to 272.

The most significant reform in the bill separates the Northeast Corridor route between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., from Amtrak's other long-distance routes. That will force Amtrak to reinvest profits from the heavily used route back into the Northeast Corridor to help improve train speeds and passenger service, rather than diverting those profits to help subsidize 15 unprofitable long-distance routes around the country.

The bill also gives officials in 19 states greater input in deciding service changes and budgets for routes they help subsidize in their states; streamlines environmental reviews and other regulations involved in approving constructions projects; and directs Amtrak to take certain steps to eliminate operating losses for food service aboard trains.

But the biggest breakthrough, at least for train-loving pet owners, is a provision allowing passengers to bring dogs and cats on board.

Under a pilot program, Amtrak will designate at least one car per train, where feasible, for pets, so that passengers "may transport a domesticated cat or dog in the same manner as carry-on baggage."

That provision was included by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who says he's been pushing for pets on trains since he was prevented from taking his French bulldog on an Amtrak train several years ago.

On a post on his Facebook page Feb. 19, Denham wrote, "Lily often accompanies me when I fly across the country, and it just doesn't make sense that I can bring her with me on a plane, but she can't come with me on a train."

The bill now moves to the Senate, and has the support of the Obama administration.

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