Vice President Joe Biden, once a regular rail commuter, said Friday that $1.3 billion for Amtrak in the economic stimulus package will go toward long-overdue infrastructure upgrades and expanded passenger rail capacity.
Speaking at Union Station, Biden said $105 million will be spent to replace a 102-year-old Connecticut bridge on Amtrak's heavily traveled Northeast Corridor. Another $82 million will be used to repair old rail cars and put them back into service.
The national passenger railroad, long criticized for its reliance on government subsidies, has strong support from the Obama administration. As senator, Biden commuted for decades between his home in Wilmington, Del., and Washington. And in January, Barack Obama rode the train from Philadelphia to the nation's capital for his inauguration.
Biden said every passenger rail system in the world relies on subsidies, as do airports and highways, and that for too long Amtrak has been starved for cash.
"I'm tired of apologizing for help for Amtrak," he said. "It is an absolute national treasure and necessity."
Biden said money from the federal stimulus package will roughly double the size of Amtrak's capital investment program over two years. The infusion of cash will help whittle down a maintenance backlog estimated at about $5 billion.
"It's a darn good slice of (the backlog)," Amtrak chief executive Joseph Boardman said of the stimulus. "It's something we can make real progress with."
Boardman said the money will support about 8,000 jobs and will be put to use quickly.
The largest project to receive help is the aging drawbridge spanning the Niantic River near East Lyme, Conn. Repairs have been planned for 20 years, but have been postponed because of a lack of funds. Further delays, Biden said, would lead to significant speed restrictions, slowing trains on the Northeast Corridor that runs from Washington to Boston.
Repairs were expected to begin almost immediately and should be completed in two years, Boardman said.
Stimulus funds also will be used to repair 68 rail cars and return them into service, helping to boost capacity on heavily traveled routes.
The repairs will take place at facilities in Beech Grove, Ind., and Bear, Del., officials said. Amtrak plans to hire workers who have been laid off from jobs at nearby manufacturing facilities that have recently closed.
Upgrades also include $63 million to fix Amtrak's aging power supply system on the Northeast Corridor. Problems with converters in Chester, Pa., installed in the 1920s, led to three power outages in 2006 that inconvenienced passengers for hours, officials said.
Other improvements include installing better signals that will help prevent train collisions and derailments, and repairs to dozens of aging rail stations, maintenance facilities and warehouses across the country.
Amtrak has posted six years of ridership and revenue growth, due in part to high gasoline and airline prices. The railroad carried a record 28.7 million people last year.