Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak funding request’

Committee OKs Transportation Funding Bill

June 27, 2022

A congressional committee last week approved a bill that provide a 23 percent increase in discretionary spending for public transit, and passenger and freight railroads in federal fiscal year 2023.

The Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill was approved by the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on a voice vote.

The bill is expected to be considered this week by the full Appropriations Committee, which wants to clear spending bills before the July 4th recess.

It would then move to the Senate. The 2023 federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Much of the appropriations proposed by the bill are above the amounts appropriated for the current fiscal year, but below what was authorized in earlier congressional action.

For example, the bill approves $1.6 billion for Amtrak’s national network. That is an increase over the $1.4 billion appropriated for the current fiscal year but short of the $2.2 billion authorized for FY 2023.

Total Amtrak funding in the bill would be $2.3 billion versus the $3 billion proposed by the Biden administration and $3.3 billion sought by Amtrak.

The passenger carrier had said it needed that level of funding because of “the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic [that] continue to affect revenue and ridership.”

Amtrak said “robust FY 2023 grant funding is needed to enable Amtrak to continue operating our long-distance trains.”

The bill approved last week allocates $500 million for the Federal State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program, which funds capital projects to bring facilities and infrastructure to a state of good repair, improve performance, and expand or establish new intercity passenger rail services.

The Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program would receive $630 million. This includes a $150 million set-aside to “support the development of new intercity passenger rail service routes including alignments for existing routes.”

The bill contains language that seeks to prevent Amtrak from reducing or eliminating national network service, stating that Amtrak may not “discontinue, reduce the frequency of, suspend, or substantially alter the route of rail service on any portion of such route,” except in an emergency or during maintenance or construction outages.

No funding was appropriated for the Restoration and Enhancement Grants program, which provides operating assistance grants for initiating, restoring, or enhancing intercity passenger rail transportation.

Instead, the bill says Amtrak may use up to 10 percent of its $1.46 billion national network grant for the activities outlined in the service restoration program.

Amtrak Expects to Need $1B in Annual Federal Funding for the Next Decade

May 9, 2022

Back in 2019 when the much reviled Richard Anderson was president of Amtrak, the nation’s passenger railroad talked a lot about how it was on the cusp of breaking even.

A budget estimate that Amtrak sent to Congress in March 2020 even predicted operating profits by 2025. Those profits were expected to grow over the next decade.

But that same month the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and the bottom fell out for Amtrak and other transportation providers.

America’s Railroad, as Amtrak likes to call itself, lost 97 percent of its ridership and Congress responded by providing Amtrak $3.7 billion in emergency funding in federal fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to stave off bankruptcy.

Although COVID-19 and its variants is still around, the pandemic fears have been waning and passengers are returning to the rails.

Amtrak now projects that it will reach pre-COVID ridership and revenue by FY2024, which begins Oct. 1, 2023.

Yet the passenger carrier’s most recent budget estimates submitted to Congress show a shift in the thinking of Amtrak management about its finances.

Gone are the rosy projections of operating profits. Those have been replaced with an acknowledgement that Amtrak will need federal funding of $1 billion a year over the next decade.

The Eno Center for Transportation has published an analysis of Amtrak’s latest budget estimates that provides an overview of how Amtrak sees its finances playing out in the next several years.

That analysis can be read at https://www.enotrans.org/article/amtrak-concedes-perpetual-1-billion-year-operating-losses/

From my perspective, the most interesting and important points in the analysis written by Jeff Davis are made toward the end because they hint at a coming battle in Congress that some rail passenger advocates may not see coming.

In the past several months Amtrak supporters have been talking up the benefits to intercity rail passenger service of the infusion of money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The Rail Passengers Association has touted IIJA as an unprecedented if not a once in a lifetime $36 billion investment in passenger rail.

In talking about how transformative this funding will be, RPA has oversold what IIJA is likely to produce. That could be setting up some of its members for future shock.

There is, of course, some truth to the rhetoric being espoused by RPA and other rail passenger advocates. And to his credit RPA head Jim Mathews has hinted that the gains of IIJA could be more fragile than many of his members want to believe.

IIJA has created the potential for expansion of the nation’s rail passenger network. That in turn has led to expectations that have been fed by Amtrak itself proposing an expansive plan known as Amtrak ConnectsUS that would create more than 30 new corridor services.

But expectations are not reality nor do they always become reality.

It is true that the IIJA contains funding that could help launch some of those new services envisioned in Amtrak ConnectsUS.

But what some may not recognize unless they have paid close attention is that IIJA is a capital funding program. It provides not a dime for operating expenses of a single Amtrak train.

Those expenses will be paid for by ticket revenue, public money or both.

Now Amtrak has said that it will not make enough in ticket revenue to pay the expenses of its trains.

For most rail passenger advocates that is no big deal. They have long acknowledged that passenger trains need public funding and have sought to explain that away by saying that all forms of transportation are funded at some level with public funding.

There is some truth to that if you consider that the infrastructure used by airlines and bus companies is paid for in part with public money.

Airlines and bus companies will counter that they pay their “fair share” through user fees and taxes of the cost of that infrastructure, but that’s a debatable proposition that is at best a half truth.

The public funding of airline and bus operations does not stand out as a line item in a budget as does funding of Amtrak operations.

In his analysis, Davis makes a valid point in writing, “Amtrak can claim with some credibility that Congress, through the IIJA, chose to de-emphasize the issue of operating losses.”

He then makes a side-by-side comparison of what the federal code says about Amtrak operations before and after passage of the IIJA.

At first glance, those changes appear to put to rest the notion that Amtrak is expected to be profitable.

But read the language again. Whereas before passage of the IIJA Section  C of 49 U.S.C. §24101 said “Amtrak shall . . . use its best business judgment in acting to minimize United States Government subsidies . . .” the IIJA changed the phrasing to Amtrak shall “maximize the benefits of Federal investments.”

Nothing in the federal code requires Congress to spend money on intercity rail passenger service at all. Likewise, the federal code does not require Congress to spend whatever it takes to maintain the existing Amtrak network forever let alone spend money to expand that network.

That is a significant point because the debate in Congress is not so much about whether Amtrak trains lose money – even if some members try to frame it that way – as it is how much to spend to underwrite those losses.

Since Amtrak’s inception in 1971, some members of Congress have sought to end federal funding of intercity rail passenger service if not put Amtrak out of business.

Those efforts have uniformly failed although at times Congress has reduced its financial support of Amtrak, which in turn led to the discontinuance of some routes and trains.

The last significant shrinkage of routes and services occurred in the early 2000s, the service suspensions that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding.

It is also noteworthy that those early 2000s service reductions came as a coda to the last time Amtrak proposed major service expansions, many of which never occurred.

In the Eno analysis, Davis notes that when the IIJA was adopted deficit spending was not considered by a majority of members of Congress to be a problem because the nation was still recovering from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But now the nation is facing large scale inflation and budget deficits are one factor that drives inflation.

If as many political pundits predict Republicans gain control of one or both chambers of Congress in the November elections Amtrak funding requests may face a more hostile environment.

It may be that federal law doesn’t require Amtrak trains to make a profit, but that means nothing to deficit hawks. It never has and it never will. They have beliefs about what is a legitimate purpose on which to spend public money and what is not. Intercity rail passenger service is among the latter.

And some Republicans have already signaled what they hope to do about Amtrak.

Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) introduced the Returning Amtrak to Economic Sustainability Act, which calls for changing the language of 49 USC 24101 to replace  the word “modern in the phrase “intercity passenger and commuter rail passenger transportation” with “economically sustainable.”

The RATES act would also add the phrase “while ensuring route profitability proportional to the Federal share of investment” as well.

It is uncertain if the RATES Act would make it through a GOP-controlled Congress although it likely would receive a more favorable reception than it has in the current Congress controlled by Democrats.

But even if Democrats maintain control of Congress, lawmakers must still deal with the prospect of having to, as Davis put it, “either write the checks for the billion-per-year operating losses over the coming decade, or else use their annual platform to encourage (or require) Amtrak to pay attention to operating losses if they want to avoid writing those checks.”

That could easily lead to environments such as existed in the late 1970s, in the early 1980s and in the late 1990s when Amtrak budget cuts resulted in service reductions.

Rather than enjoying the fruits of a second passenger rail renaissance in which the nation’s passenger train network expands, passenger train advocates will be faced with fighting to save as much existing service as they can if not having to save Amtrak itself.

Amtrak’s budget projections are filled with figures that show how much money long-distance passenger trains lose per passenger.

Those numbers have been used in the past to argue in favor of reducing if not ending federal spending on passenger trains. Don’t be surprised if those arguments surface again.

Richard Anderson is unlikely to return as Amtrak’s president but the political climate could lead to another Amtrak CEO who thinks as Anderson did and behaves as Anderson did in taking aim at long-distance trains for reduction.

Amtrak Seeking $3.3B in FY2023

April 12, 2022

Amtrak is asking Congress for $3.3 billion in grant funding for federal fiscal year 2023.

The passenger carrier said in a statement that accompanied its grant request that the funding will enable it to enter a new era with a historic level of federal investment for capital projects.

CEO Stephen Gardner said funding provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides Amtrak with “a clear plan to transform and grow our business.”

“Our requested FY2023 annual grant will allow Amtrak to continue operating our long-distance trains, which connect communities across the nation; to continue partnering with states to provide short-distance corridor service; and to continue normalized replacement (necessary maintenance and sustainment) of aged assets on the Northeast Corridor, all while facing new levels of uncertainty and disruption from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Gardner said in the statement.

The grant request includes $1.1 billion for the Northeast Corridor and $2.2 billion for the national network.

The budget request projects that ridership in FY2023 will be 28.8 million. During FY2019 Amtrak handled 32.5 million passengers. It carried 16.8 million in FY2020 and 12.2 million in FY2021. Expected ridership for FY2022 is 23.2 million.

Projected revenue for FY2023 is $1.98 billion in gross ticket revenue; $3.1 billion in total operating revenue; and an adjusted loss of $1 billion.

Biden Budget Proposal Boosts Amtrak Spending 35%

May 30, 2021

Amtrak would get a 35 percent boost, most of it for capital projects, if Congress adopts the Biden administration budget.

The administration has proposed $2.7 billion for Amtrak with a major share of that funding set to be used for track and station improvements, fleet refreshment, and systemwide maintenance. Another $625 million would create a new grant program, Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization and Expansion, to develop and expand rail corridors across the nation.

The U.S Department of Transportation would receive $88 billion in total.

This includes $13.5 billion for transit projects of which $2.5 billion is for Capital Investment Grants, a $459 million increase, to accelerate projects already in process and support new projects seeking approval.

Another $550 million would go toward Transit Infrastructure Grants of which $250 million is for the Zero Emission Bus Program.

The Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant program would receive $1 billion in funding.

Amtrak Seeks $75B to Develop New Service

May 28, 2021

Amtrak elaborated this week on its “Connect US” plan, which calls for a 15-year $75 billion federal investment to add 39 new routes and enhance service on 25 other routes.

Calling the plan “Corridor Vision,” Amtrak said it would lead to the carrier providing intercity rail passenger service in 47 of the 48 contiguous states and new stations in more than half of those states.

If implemented, the network expansion would generate $8 billion in annual economic benefits by 2035 and an additional $195 billion in economic activity resulting from capital projects during the same period.

In a letter to Congress, Amtrak CEO William Flynn outlined details of the plan, many of which have already been reported.

This includes Amtrak paying all initial costs for new or improved service but with states eventually assuming responsibility for those costs.

Amtrak proposed to pay upfront the estimated cost for stations, rail cars, locomotives, and infrastructure.

Amtrak also is seeking a dedicated funding source, the Passenger Rail Trust Fund, and called for passage of the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, which would enhance Amtrak’s ability to enforce its right of operating preference over freight trains.

In an effort to prevent host railroads from stalling the launch of new routes, Amtrak wants Congress to clarify existing law that provides Amtrak with access to host railroads.

“Too often host railroads resist and stall any efforts to expand service,” Flynn wrote.

In a statement issued with a news release, Flynn said new and improved rail service has the ability to change how Americans move while providing cleaner air, reducing highway congestion and providing a more connected country.

Details of the Connect US plan are contained in a report Amtrak issued titled Amtrak’s Vision for Improving Transportation Across America.

Among the cities that would receive new or improved service are Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Nashville, Columbus, Phoenix, and Wichita.

Amtrak said the added service could increase its ridership by 20 million riders annually.

Amtrak said the plan is not a final proposal and does not lay out a specific order or priority ranking for route development.

It said many factors, including available funding levels, post-pandemic travel demand, state interest, host railroad conditions, and equipment availability, will play a role in determining final implementation plans for the Connect US program.

If a corridor is not mentioned in the plan, Amtrak said that doesn’t mean it opposes development of that service.

The passenger carrier cautioned that just because a corridor is shown in its plan doesn’t mean it is certain to be implemented.

“The corridors proposed here are intended to be additive to Amtrak’s pre-COVID-19 route network,” Amtrak said.

Amtrak expects to implement its corridor services over a 15-year period.

The Amtrak report also sought to downplay the idea that these will be high-speed routes.

“While high speed rail service may be right for certain corridors, current state-supported Amtrak services such as the Pacific Surfliner and the Hiawatha show that intercity passenger rail can be successful with conventional operating speeds,” Amtrak said.

“As corridors which begin at conventional speeds build ridership and demand, they can be considered for future conversion to high speed service.”

Funding for Connect US would come from a variety of sources, including direct federal funding to Amtrak for corridor development and operation, and discretionary grants available to states, Amtrak and others for corridor development, the report said.

“This vision does not propose to replace existing grant programs. Rather, it would augment them with dedicated and reliable funding from an intercity passenger rail trust fund … or other source needed to execute on a long-term vision.”

Amtrak Sends Congress its Wish List

April 30, 2021

Amtrak sent Congress its wish list this week for fiscal year 2022 funding and it is quite ambitious, seeking to nearly double what Amtrak received before 2020.

The requests include funding for new corridor services, hints at expanding the frequency of operation of the Cardinal and Sunset Limited, and seeks “bold” funding for Northeast Corridor and other capital projects.

The intercity passengers carrier wants a FY2022 grant of $3.88 billion for base needs and funding to offset the pandemic’s impacts on Amtrak and its state and commuter partners.

Also requested was $1.55 billion for Northeast Corridor infrastructure projects and development of new corridor routes across the nation.

In a statement, Amtrak CEO William Flynn noted that Amtrak will soon place into service new Acela equipment and locomotives for long distance trains.

Flynn said that granting Amtrak the funding it seeks would enable it to “play a central role” in helping the nation’s economy recover from the pandemic.

The funding requests are contained in a 77-page General and Legislative Annual Report and Fiscal Year 2022 Grant Request.

As reported earlier, Amtrak proposes to pick up all of the capital and operating costs for the first two years of operation of any new multi-frequency corridor.

But state and local governments would be expected to pay at least 10 percent of costs in the third year, 20 percent in the fourth, and 50 percent in the fifth.

In the sixth year state and local governments would be responsible for all costs as allocated uniformly under Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.

However, Amtrak believes that the corridor operations will earn enough revenue after five years to make continued operation attractive.

The funding for new corridor services could also be used to support increases in service frequency for less-than-daily long distance routes and certain specific investments in corridor service at no long-term cost to Amtrak’s state partners.

The latter could include service to Canada and Mexico. All of Amtrak’s service to Canada is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The request mentions that Amtrak’s funding request also reflects funding needed to buy replacement equipment for Amtrak’s Superliner and Amfleet II fleet.

Amtrak earlier this month named Siemens to build 83 transets to replace Amfleet equipment but that is not thought to include Amfleet II cars.

Elsewhere on Amtrak’s wish list is federal legislation to give it a right to sue its host railroads for failure to provide dispatching preference for passenger trains and give the Surface Transportation Board authority to determine whether additional trains on a given route “would unreasonably impair freight transportation.”

The passenger carrier also reprised an idea from the 1980s that was never adopted of establishing an Intercity Passenger Rail Trust Fund.

If Amtrak gets its way, Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Program loans would be easier to obtain and states would be allowed to spend a portion of their Highway Trust Fund money on passenger rail.