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Bond provision could give NE Amtrak trains major boost

Amtrak also could be in line for a slice of the $8 billion allotted for high-speed rail corridors in the stimulus.

Amtrak emerged a big winner in the $787.2 billion economic stimulus bill, despite the efforts of conservatives to slash its funding.

The government-subsidized passenger rail service got $1.3 billion in direct appropriations in the final bill -- $450 million more than the Senate version, although the excess is earmarked for security improvements.

That leaves $850 million in capital improvements for the cash-strapped rail service, and the heavily traveled Northeast corridor is in line for 60 percent of that.

Amtrak could also be in line for a slice of the $8 billion allotted for high-speed rail corridors negotiated by the Obama administration in the final bill, although Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will determine the funding formula.

The final bill includes a separate provision that could be worth another $288 million to Amtrak service along the Washington-Boston line. That is due to an innovative bond financing method authored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. -- one of three Senate Republicans to vote for the bill -- that alters the definition of "high-speed rail facilities" eligible for tax-exempt bond financing. Under existing law, states can issue private-activity bonds for high-speed rail facilities that transport passengers between major metropolitan areas using vehicles that "are reasonably expected to operate at speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour between scheduled stops," according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. Under the stimulus provision, facilities with trains "capable of attaining a maximum speed in excess of 150 miles per hour" would qualify.

That definition applies to Amtrak's high-speed Acela trains, although the rail service is not specifically identified in the bill. A Kerry press release taking credit for the provision noted that "investments in high-speed rail can be used to help make necessary improvements to the Northeast corridor." Kerry used his clout on the Finance Committee to include the language in the committee-reported bill, and it stayed in the final conference report. He told the Boston Globe over the weekend that the combined effect of the stimulus provisions could cut the Acela trip from Boston to New York to 2.5 hours, and from New York to Washington to 2 hours.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said Acela trains can only reach the top speed of 150 miles per hour in a segment of the route in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The part of the route south of New York City only hits 135 miles per hour, he said. The rail service needs an overhead-wiring electrification system that is not impacted by bad weather, he said, noting that south of New York the system was largely installed in the 1930s. North of New Haven, Conn., a more modern "catenary" system for high-speed trains, such as those used in Europe and the Pacific Rim, was installed in the 1990s.

The Northeast corridor is "a very, very complex piece of railroad that could benefit by capital investments and infrastructure to improve capacity, reliability and speed," Black said. With friends like Kerry and Specter -- not to mention Amtrak's biggest booster in politics, Vice President Joseph Biden -- Amtrak could experience prolonged benefits it never enjoyed during George W. Bush's presidency.