Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak expansion’

Inside IIJA’s Rail Funding: Let the Dreaming Begin

November 13, 2021

First in a three-part series

Last March as President Joseph R. Biden was laying the groundwork for an infrastructure rebuilding plan he was about to send to Congress he spoke about how it could spark a second rail revolution.

In a March 31 speech to introduce his American Jobs Plan, Biden remarked, “You and your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas onboard a high‐​speed train.”

More than a week later, Biden repeated the same claim but added, “close to as fast as you can go across the country in a plane.”

It was a bold although unrealistic vision and it turned out the infrastructure bill, formally known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, did not contain funding for high-speed rail.

Nonetheless, Biden’s plan to spend 1.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product a year for the next eight years to boost the economy captivated rail passenger advocates.

 Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews put Biden’s vision into a rail passenger context in a column published in Passenger Train Journal, titled “$80 Billion Buys a Lot of French Toast.”

The headline referenced the $10 billion a year Biden’s plan would devote to rail service.

“Injecting $10 billion more each year into rail projects would let Amtrak expand passenger rail to 160 new stops, add at least 30 new corridors, and boost frequencies beyond once daily in at least 15 states,” Mathews wrote.

Seven months later the infrastructure bill has cleared Congress – albeit barely – and RPA is hailing it as a “new era for America’s passenger rail network.”

Amtrak CEO William Flynn issued a statement that said in part, “This bill will allow Amtrak to advance significant infrastructure and major station projects on the NEC [Northeast Corridor], purchase new passenger rail equipment and develop new rail corridors, bringing passenger rail to more people across the nation.

Similar rosy statements have been issued by other trade associations representing Class 1 railroads, short line and regional railroads, and public transit agencies.

The $1.2 trillion in the IIJA is a lot of money and passage of the bill is historic. It is a blueprint for spending about 1 percent of GDP per year on such things as roads, bridges, rail, public transit, water systems, broadband, and power systems.

That will increase federal spending on infrastructure to the highest level of GDP that it has been since the 1980s.

Flynn told the news website Axios that the $66 billion for rail in the bill is “more funding than we’ve had in our 50 years of history combined” with about half of that money being used for expanding intercity rail passenger service.

But will the IIJA prove to be the catalyst that creates a sea change for U.S. passenger rail that results in the type of expansive network that rail passenger advocates have been dreaming about for decades?

It could be a step in that direction. Yet many are reading into the IIJA what they want to believe the legislation bill could deliver.

William C. Vantuono, editor of Railway Age, sounded a cautionary note about the effects of IIJA by quoting consultant Jim Hanscom who described IIJA is an authorizing bill.

“It is managed by Congressional authorizing committees. Appropriating committees are separate, and cover what is appropriated for spending in any given year. There is nothing to say that all the money gets spent,” he told Vantuono.

Read that last sentence again while keeping in mind that IIJA contains a five-year surface transportation spending plan.

Authorizing money is not the same as appropriating money, which is subject to the vagaries of the annual congressional appropriation process.

There are a number of things regarding passenger rail that IIJA does not do.

It does not establish a permanent dedicated funding source for passenger rail, something Amtrak and rail advocates have sought for decades and failed to achieve.

It does not repeal a federal law requiring state and local governments to pay for Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles.

It does not allocate nearly enough money to cover the estimated $75 billion cost of implementing the Amtrak ConnectsUS plan that Mathews was referencing in his PTJ column. IIJA is at best a down payment on route expansion.

It does nothing to overcome host railroad resistance of new Amtrak service or reign in their strategy of demanding expensive capital improvement projects in return for allowing passenger service.

Not all of the money in the bill will go directly to Amtrak. Most of it will be channeled to the Federal Railroad Administration through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The FRA in turn will dole out funding through discretionary grants or to specific initiatives spelled out in the legislation.

The legislation gives the FRA 180 days to “establish a program to facilitate the development of intercity passenger rail corridors.”

Section 22308 of the bill contains criteria the FRA is to take into account when drawing up the grant eligibility guidelines.

This includes whether a proposed route had already been identified as part of a regional planning study; is part of a state’s rail plan; the route’s potential ridership, capital requirements and expected trip times; anticipated public benefits; the level of readiness of the operators and the community to accept federal funds; and existing support from operators and host railroads.

New services are expected to benefit rural communities; enhance “regional equity and geographic diversity;” and/or benefit underserved, low-income communities or areas of “persistent poverty.”

Not all of the money the IIJA will award will necessarily go directly to Amtrak. Eligible recipients include states, interstate compacts, regional passenger rail authorities, regional planning organizations, state political subdivisions, federally recognized Indian Tribes, and “other public entities” recognized by USDOT.

In an interview last month with Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston, FRA deputy administrator Amit Bose said, “There’s no other way to dice it: state support and involvement is essential. So is host railroad agreement and support of those projects.”

That underscores a hard truth that some rail passenger advocates will have a hard time swallowing.

The money the FRA will have available is for federal-state partnership projects. It is most likely to go to those states that have shown a willingness to fund a share of the project cost.

That is likely to favor projects already in the works, such as a second Chicago-Twin Cities Amtrak train for which Minnesota and Wisconsin have approved spending for planning work.

This could be bad news for Ohio and the 3-C project, which has received public support from some public officials, namely mayors and legislators along the proposed route, but those whose views count the most have been silent or noncommittal.

Without the governor and legislative leaders being onboard 3C may find itself toward the back of the line.

Next: Breaking down the rail funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Amtrak Says 3C+D Could Start in 2 Years

May 20, 2021

Amtrak service between Cleveland and Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton could be up and running in as little as two years, company executives said this week.

Amtrak Chairman William Flynn and President Steven Gardner joined several Ohio elected and civic officials in an online roundtable designed to build support for the proposed service.

However, getting the service out of the station hinges on Congress appropriating the billions the passenger carrier is seeking to develop a series of new corridors across the country.

Gardner also noted that Amtrak needs to negotiate agreements with the host railroads whose tracks it will use on the 250-mile route.

“We believe we could start initial service, maybe one round-trip or a few, without much initial investment, using current track speeds,” Gardner said. “We believe we could get started here in hopefully what would be a relatively short period of a couple of years.”

In the meantime, what was once called the 3C corridor is now being branded as the 3C+D route to include Dayton in the nomenclature.

Garnder said the length of the route is is the sweet spot for successful intercity passenger rail service.

“This service is the type of service we should have for major cities, and for an important state like Ohio,” he said. “Frankly, it should have happened a long time ago.”

The 3C+D corridor is part of an ambitious plan by Amtrak to expand intercity service.

Aside from the Cleveland-Cincinnati route, Amtrak has proposed creating additional service on existing routes through Cleveland to Detroit and Buffalo.

The passenger carrier would front the money to be used for capital costs to develop the routes and initially pay the operating costs of the trains.

But state and local governments would be expected to assume operating costs on a sliding scale with Amtrak’s share declining until states would pay all of the operating costs.

Although the proposed 3C+D service received endorsements from various mayors who joined the call, Ohio Gov. Michael DeWine has been noncommittal about it.

Last month DeWine said he was reserving judgment on the plan until he could learn more about it, including its potential cost to the state.

Although neither DeWine nor a representative of the Ohio Department of Transportation participated in this week’s online roundtable, Gardner said Amtrak is “anxious to work with the state to look at what that partnership could be and put together a model that makes sense for Ohio.”

During the roundtable, Amtrak said the3C+D route would have stations in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati as well as at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Crestline, Delaware, Springfield and Sharonville.

Service is expected to be three round-trips per day with additional trips being added as ridership grows.

The route is expected to draw as many as 500,000 passengers annually and provide an economic impact of $130 million.

The Cleveland-Cincinnati travel time would be about 5.5 hours, but track improvements could cut that to 4 hours and 55 minutes.

Gardner said that a train does not need to be faster than car travel, but does need to be competitive. “The time on the train is productive time, which is not the same as driving time,” he said. “You can work, you can have access to wi-fi, you can socialize, you can walk around. It’s a much more comfortable and productive method,” he said.

Cleveland has the most current Amtrak service of the cities in the 3C+D corridor being served by the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited and the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

Trains on both of those routes, though are scheduled to pass through Cleveland between midnight and 6 a.m.

Cincinnati has a similar situation with the Chicago-New York Cardinal. Dayton and Columbus have lacked Amtrak service since the Oct. 1, 1979, discontinuance of the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson was one of the participants in the roundtable and gave the 3C+D a hearty endorsement.

“We simply don’t have the luxury of choosing not to do this,” he said. “It is about positioning Ohio for the future. It’s not a question of rural or urban or suburban or Democrat or Republican. It’s about do we as Ohioans want to be competitive in the world, in this nation?”

Also participating in the roundtable were Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley; Crestline Mayor Linda Horning-Pitt, and William Murdock, the executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

Columbus is the second-largest metro area in the country without Amtrak service. Phoenix is the largest. 

“Not being in that network puts us at a disadvantage,” Murdock said. 

“Businesses and residents are clamoring for this,” he said. “We know the community is behind it. Investing in Ohio, it makes a lot of sense. It’s grounded not just in major cities, it’s really important to rural areas and smaller metros.”

Murdock said when young people arrive in Columbus one of the first questions they ask is, “Where’s the train stop?”

MORPC released 30 letters of support from community leaders who want expanded Amtrak service in Ohio.

Some of the funding Amtrak hopes to land to develop the 3C+D route would come from the $80 billion earmarked for Amtrak by President Joseph Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal.

However, other funding would be contained in a surface transportation bill Congress is expected to take up later this year.

That bill, though, would merely authorize spending. Other legislation would need to be adopted to appropriate federal funding for Amtrak expansion.

The 3C corridor has been the subject of numerous studies and failed attempts to launch service.

The most recent occurred 11 years ago when the state received a $400 million grant to start the route.

However, John Kasich campaigned for governor on a pledge to refuse the funding, which he made good on after being elected in 2010.

Before that ODOT proposed a Cleveland-Columbus service during a rebuilding of Interstate 71. That also failed to launch.

During the roundtable, Amtrak CEO Flynn said the carrier has spent the past three years developing a strategy to expand service.

Known as Connect US, the expansion would touch up to 160 communities in 25 states on more than 30 routes It would be developed over the next 15 years.

Also included in the proposal is additional service between Cincinnati and Chicago via Indianapolis. That route would have an extension from Indianapolis to Louisville, Kentucky.

Although not part of the Amtrak Connect US network, studies are underway of a route between Chicago and Pittsburgh via Columbus.

Although no ODOT officials joined this week’s roundtable, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier has spoken with ODOT and Ohio Rail Development Commission members.

Gardner acknowledged said that much work needs to be done to bring the 3C+D service to fruition.

“These are not insurmountable challenges,” he said.

Amtrak Celebrates 50 Years

May 3, 2021

Expanding its network was the theme of the day as Amtrak celebrated its 50th anniversary on Friday at a ceremony in Philadelphia featuring President Joseph Biden.

Amtrak has announced a project to add service in corridors that would add up to 160 communities to its network over the next 15 years.

Amtrak CEO William Flynn said the expansion plan would provide Amtrak service to 47 of the nation’s 50 largest cities while also increasing service in more than half the 50 states.

“America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service. Amtrak has the vision and expertise to deliver it, now we need Congress to provide the funding for the next 50 years,” Flynn said.

During his remarks, Biden endorsed the Amtrak expansion plan while playing up his proposed $2.3 billion infrastructure program.

“Today we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position Amtrak, and rail, and intercity rail . . . to play a central role in our transformation of transportation and economic future,” Biden said.

Both the Biden infrastructure plan and the Amtrak expansion will need to win Congressional approval.

The Amtrak expansion plan does not include any new long-distance routes, instead focusing on short-distance corridors that in time would be supported by state and local governments.

Aside from a goal of having the new routes in place by 2035, Amtrak has not provided a timeline to begin initiating the service.

In its federal fiscal year 2022 budget request Amtrak is seeking funding to pay for the capital and initial operating costs of the new corridor services.