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By Caryn Shinske December 5, 2011

Lautenberg says federal highway spending last year exceeded total given Amtrak over 40 years

Amtrak has always needed a money train.

The nation’s rail system has been criticized by numerous lawmakers for always operating at a deficit and seeking financial boosts from Congress. But when compared with federal highway spending, Amtrak’s balance sheet doesn’t look so bad, according to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), a major proponent of rail transportation.

"Last year we spent more than $40 billion on highways. And Lord knows we need that. But that's more than we spent on Amtrak in its entire 40-year history," Lautenberg said in an article on, the online home of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Can it be that after 40 years of operation the money spent on Amtrak didn’t even equal one year of federal highway spending? PolitiFact New Jersey found the claim is right on track.

Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, DC confirmed that highway spending for Fiscal Year 2010 (Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2010) exceeded $40 billion. Highway spending generally increases a small amount each year for inflation, he said.

By comparison, Caley Gray, Lautenberg’s communications director, said Congress has spent $37.9 billion on Amtrak from Fiscal Year 1971 to Fiscal Year 2011, according to Amtrak.

That’s a bit more than Amtrak’s total, but it supports Lautenberg’s statement.

"In the forty years of Amtrak’s existence, the Federal government has invested a total of $36 billion in the Amtrak system – a figure that represents both operating and capital funding," Amtrak President and CEO Joseph H. Boardman said in Amtrak’s General and Legislative Annual Report to Senate President Joseph Biden Jr. and House Speaker John Boehner. Amtrak’s Comprehensive Business Plan for Fiscal Year 2012 was included with the report dated Feb. 7. "Between 1971 and 2008, by contrast, the Federal government has invested more than $421 billion in aviation and over a trillion dollars in the nation’s highways."

Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, Calif., suggested that Lautenberg wasn’t dismissing the need for highway funding, but pointing to other transportation needs for the nation.

"His statement is accurate and I think his intent is to indicate that – certainly not to denigrate the highway system, but to note the world is in transition now, to move away to petroleum-based transportation to electrically based transportation."

Diridon didn’t suggest people give up their vehicles, but said having an upgraded electric rail system can have many benefits: efficiency in moving people, less reliance on foreign oil and reduced environmental impact.

Lautenberg touched on those points as well as increased ridership in a July 5 letter sent to Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) supporting Amtrak’s $2.2 billion funding request for Fiscal Year 2012. Murray is chairman and Collins is a ranking member on the Appropriations Committee for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. Lautenberg and 19 other U.S. senators signed the letter.

Amtrak got $1.41 billion in assistance for its nearly $3.9 billion budget, said Clifford Cole, media relations manager for Amtrak Media Relations/Government Affairs in New York.

Our ruling

In an article about expanding rail routes and access in Louisiana, Lautenberg said Congress spent more than $40 billion on highways last year, more than has been spent on Amtrak in the national rail system’s 40-year history. The Federal Highway Administration confirmed the highway spending figure, as did Amtrak in a letter requesting $2.2 billion in federal assistance for its Fiscal Year 2012 budget. There’s nothing off the rails here. We rate this statement True. 

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Our Sources, Money-losing Amtrak operates as ‘Soviet-style monopoly,’ congressman says, Oct. 24, 2011, accessed Nov. 28, 2011,

Email interview with Clifford Cole, media relations manager for Amtrak Media Relations/Government Affairs, Nov. 29, 2011

Email interviews with Caley Gray, communications director for Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Nov. 29 and 30

Letter to U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Susan Collins from Sen. Frank Lautenberg and 19 other senators supporting full funding of Amtrak’s FY2012 budget request, July 5, 2011, accessed Nov. 30, 2011

Phone interview with Doug Hecox, spokesman, Federal Highway Administration, Dec. 1, 2011

Amtrak’s Fiscal Year 2012 General and Legislative Annual Report and FY 2012 Comprehensive Business Plan, accessed Dec. 1, 2011

Phone interview with Rod Diridon, executive director, Mineta Transportation Insitute, San Jose, Calif., Dec. 1, 2011 

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Lautenberg says federal highway spending last year exceeded total given Amtrak over 40 years

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