June 24, 2006

WASHINGTON (June 14)—The U.S. House of Representatives overruled its Appropriations Committee and raised Amtrak’s 2007 budget by 22 per cent Monday night, and the Illinois House delegation was a major element in the victory.

“It appears that our strong grass-roots efforts in Illinois are working their way up to the Congressional level,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “The Democrats in Illinois were unanimous in supporting the increase and five of our nine Republicans voted yes.”

Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-Willowbrook) was the only “no” Illinois vote. Congressmen Hyde, Manzullo and Evans were absent. The Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, traditionally casts a vote only in cases of a tie.

The Bush Administration had recommended that Congress give Amtrak only $900 million, which would have been a shutdown figure, and the House Appropriations Committee agreed. “This would have jeopardized our recent victories in the Illinois General Assembly to grow our state network,” Szabo said.

But when the vote came to the House floor Tuesday night, Representatives Stephen LaTourette (R-Ohio) and James Oberstar (D- Minnesota) offered a bi-partisan amendment giving Amtrak another $200 million, and it passed by a vote of 266-158, with strong support from Illinois.

Szabo said that the Illinois delegation’s strong support for Amtrak was no accident.

“Our state’s congressional delegation is starting to get the message from back home when it comes to passenger rail,” Szabo said. “I was making the rounds last week in D.C. and making sure that each member of the Illinois Delegation understood what we achieved in Springfield. I believe they were strongly influenced by the recent action in Illinois.

“The Illinois General Assembly just voted to double its support for Amtrak corridor service so Amtrak can initiate four more daily frequencies in the fall,” Szabo said. “Had Congress not come through to restore the administration’s proposed funding cuts, the Illinois efforts would have been wasted.”

Szabo said the UTU, its members and its allies, such as the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the Environmental Law & Policy Center, can take much of the credit for the Illinois General Assembly’s support for passenger trains.

“This is truly an example of ‘democracy in action,’” Szabo said. “Grass-roots efforts do make a difference, and those efforts now are bubbling up from local communities to Springfield and from Springfield to Washington, D.C.”

But Szabo cautioned that while this is a “significant” victory, the battle is far from over.

“We’ve got a fair budget number out of the House and have restored some of the money the administration had cut; now our efforts must turn to the Senate,” he said. “Then the two chambers must ‘conference’ and ‘reconcile’ their figure. The fight – while more encouraging – is far from over.”