Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak funding’

Infrastructure Bill Would Make Amtrak Policy Changes

August 4, 2021

The text of the proposed nearly $1 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill was revealed this week in the U.S. Senate.

As reported earlier by various sources, the bill would provide $66 billion to Amtrak with most of that money being used to address maintenance backlogs and upgrade the Northeast Corridor.

However, the text also showed the legislation would make changes to Amtrak’s legal mission.

Those include making the goal of Amtrak to “meet the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States” rather than achieving “a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money.”

There is also language that places Amtrak service to rural areas as well as urban areas.

The funding for Amtrak in the bill would allocate $1.5 billion per year for the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grants program with a 50 percent match required.

Also included in the bill is $15 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation to analyze the restoration of long-distance trains that have been terminated by Amtrak; money to fund the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program ($1 billion per year), and the Restoration and Enhancement Program ($50 million per year); and $500 million per year for rail grade crossing separation projects.

The Amtrak funding is part of an overall $102 billion package for commuter rail and other high-performance rail services.

Public transit would receive $107 billion for public transit. Some of that funding can be used for multimodal investments that include transit and passenger rail.

The legislation also contains the Senate’s version of a new surface transportation reauthorization  bill that authorizes funding for railroads, water infrastructure, public transit, highway, bridges and roads.

Transformational? Probably Not

August 4, 2021

Although the bipartisan infrastructure bill now being debated by the Senate contains an infusion of new funding for rail passenger service, it is not necessarily the “transformational” development that rail passenger advocates have long sought.

Writing last week on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Jim Mathews, the president of the group formerly known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said the bill provides meaningful and sustained increases in passenger rail funding, yet doesn’t have nearly enough funding to provide for a wide-ranging expansion of Amtrak routes and services.

But 24 hours later, RPA’s Sean Jeans-Gail, RPA’s vice president of policy and government affairs, wrote a post saying that the views expressed in Mathews’ earlier post had been a little too pessimistic and that the infrastructure plan could be transformational.

When RPA and other rail passenger advocates use the word “transformational” they are talking about a vision in which the nation’s intercity rail passenger network is much greater than it is now. By that they mean doubled, tripled and maybe quadrupled.

It is difficult to say because advocates tend to speak in general terms about Amtrak expansion.

Amtrak has laid out its own transformational vision in its Amtrak Connect US plan that calls for a network of 39 new corridor services by 2035.

Individual rail passenger advocates, though, tend to have their own visions and dreams, some of which would involve several new long-distance routes plus an expansion of the number of trains on existing long-distance routes. Amtrak is not calling for additional long-distance routes.

Whatever your vision for expanding intercity rail passenger service might be, it won’t happen without a massive infusion of public money.

The infrastructure plan now before the Senate would allocate $66 million for passenger rail.

But most of that money would be used on Amtrak’s existing network, leaving just $32 billion for additional passenger rail funding.

 “While this bill would count as the biggest federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation, it is far below what was originally envisioned by the White House,” Mathews wrote.

He was referring to the $74 billion originally proposed by President Joseph Biden for new passenger rail projects in his American Jobs Act proposal.

What RPA and other passenger advocates really want is the $110 billion in the House-approved INVEST Act that would be spent on passenger rail.

The Senate infrastructure bill combines figures from what had been two separate pieces of legislation, one of which is the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021.

That bill, which contained $34.2 billion for passenger rail, was approved earlier by the Senate Commerce Committee.

If you combine what is available for passenger rail in the infrastructure bill with the Transportation Investment Act figures, Jeans-Gail wrote, you get a passenger rail investment of $102 billion over the next five years, which he called a “transformational” figure.

Maybe, but read the fine print. The only funding that is guaranteed by the infrastructure bill is the $66 billion of the original bi-partisan infrastructure plan.

The rest of the funding is subject to approval through the congressional appropriations process.

“There’s no assurance that the additional $36 billion in investment will ever fully materialize,” Jeans-Gail wrote. “This creates uncertainty in how the guaranteed funds would be used, hindering the ability of states and Amtrak to effectively execute multi-year capitalization plans.”

So what will that $66 billion be used for? Primarily to fund capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and the national network, and buy new equipment for the national network.

Some of the funding is devoted toward establishing new services, although Mathews suggested it might only be enough for one or two routes.

The RPA posts have suggested that money could be used to restore discontinued routes, extend existing service and add additional frequencies on existing routes.

In his post, Mathews said there remains hope that the House will approve a more generous rail funding section of the infrastructure plan. Any differences would need to be worked out between the House and Senate.

He conceded that a higher level of rail funding could draw the opposition of those Republicans who have thus far supported the bi-partisan Senate infrastructure bill.

It seems unlikely the Senate will lie down and give in to everything that the House wants. There will be a give and take in reconciling the differing visions of each chamber.

Then again the infrastructure bill hasn’t passed the Senate yet, hasn’t been considered by the House and hasn’t been signed by the president. We are talking about proposals at this point not finished products.

The numbers may change in time, but the overall thrust of what the infrastructure bill will and won’t do is unlikely to change all that much.

That may result in something transformational or it might simply lead to incremental additions to the nation’s intercity rail passenger network with new equipment and improved infrastructure being used by the existing services.

If that turns out to be the case it would be a positive for America’s intercity rail passenger network. It just won’t lead to the fulfillment of most of the desires and dreams of many rail passenger advocates.

Senate Begins Debating Infrastructure Bill

July 31, 2021

The Senate this week voted to begin debate on a $550 billion bi-partisan infrastructure bill that includes $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion for passenger and freight rail.

The bill would provide $550 billion over five years for new federal investment in infrastructure, Biden administration officials said.

The bill would authorize $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major projects.

The public transit funds are focused on modernizing  transit and improving accessibility for the elderly and those with disabilities.

The rail funding would provide $22 billion to Amtrak. That would be broken down to $24 billion in federal-state partnership grants for Northeast Corridor modernization; $12 billion for partnership grants for intercity rail service, including high speed rail; $5 billion for rail improvement and safety grants; and $3 billion for grade crossing safety improvements.

Port infrastructure would receive $17 billion while airports would receive $25 billion.

The White House fact sheet said the money for the bill is expected to come through a combination of redirecting unspent emergency relief funds, targeted corporate user fees, strengthening tax enforcement when it comes to crypto currencies, and other bipartisan measures, in addition to the revenue generated from higher economic growth as a result of the investments.

Moving to debate does not guarantee passage of the bill or even that it will receive support from Republican senators even if several of them were part of the talks that led to the legislation.

The complete text of the bill has yet to be finished.

If the bill is approved by the Senate, it would go to the House where its fate is uncertain.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to held the bill until her chamber until Congress approves a $3.5 trillion budget plan being pushed by Democrats that includes spending on programs devoted to climate change, health care, education and child care.

Some moderate House Democrats, though, are pushing for an immediate vote on the infrastructure package once it comes over from the Senate.

House Budget Bill Boosts Transportation Spending

July 20, 2021

The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a spending bill for fiscal year 2022 that would boost spending on transportation programs over FY2021 levels.

The bill, known as the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies legislation provides an increase of $1.9 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

USDOT is allocated $105.7 billion in budgetary resources, a 22 percent increase above the FY2021 enacted level ($86.7 billion) and the President Joseph Biden’s FY2022 budget request of $87 billion.

Among the spending levels authorized for transportation programs are:

• $1.2 billion for National Infrastructure Investments, a 20 percent increase from FY 2021. It includes $20 million for Transportation Planning Grants to assist areas of persistent poverty, a 100 percent increase over FY 2021. An additional $100 million is included for a new grant program to “spur thriving communities nationwide.”

•$4.1 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration, up 46 percent from FY 2021. This includes $625 million for the new Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion (PRIME) grant program “to support projects that improve, expand or establish passenger rail service”; $500 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program, a 33 percent increase from FY 2021; $2.7 billion for Amtrak, a 35 percent boost over FY 2021, which includes $1.2 billion for Northeast Corridor Grants and $1.5 billion for National Network Grants.

• $15.5 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, including $12.2 billion for Transit Formula Grants to expand bus fleets and increase the transit state of good repair; $2.5 billion for Capital Investment Grants to construct more than 23 new transit routes nationwide, a 22 percent increase above the FY 2021 enacted level and equal to the president’s budget request; and $580 million for Transit Infrastructure Grants to purchase more than 300 zero-emission buses and 400 diesel buses, and to support “transformative research for transit systems,” which is a 12 percent increase above FY 2021.

House Passes INVEST Act

July 6, 2021

The U.S. House of Representatives approved last week a five year $715 billion surface transportation bill.

Known as Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act,, the legislation would authorize  $95 billion for passenger and freight rail, including $32 billion for Amtrak that could be used to pay for existing and new service.

The Association of American Railroads panned the bill, calling it filled with “misguided, divisive policies.”

AAR instead issued a statement lauding a bi-partisan proposal being considered in the Senate.

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association in a statement said the House bill contains some beneficial provisions for short lines but also contained some “troubling provisions.”

The American Public Transportation Association was more enthusiastic about the INVEST legislation, noting that it authorizes $109 billion for public transportation, which would enable transit systems to begin to address a $105 billion state-of-good-repair backlog as well as provide funding for capital funding for new projects.

Senate Committee Puts Brakes on Amtrak’s Expansive Vision

June 21, 2021

Last week the Senate Commerce Committee approved its own version of a new surface transportation authorization act.

The bill, known as the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021, would replace the FAST Act, which is set to expire on Sept. 30.

What is noteworthy about the Senate bill is how it differs in one key area from a House surface transportation bill approved two weeks ago by a House transportation committee.

Although it boosts transportation funding generally and Amtrak funding in particular, the Senate bill would authorize far less money for both areas than the House bill.

That’s a critical point because much of the much ballyhooed Amtrak service expansion plans are premised on Congress approving a dedicated funding program to pay for that expansion.

The House bill does that but not so the Senate bill.

Before getting into the details about that, let’s get straight that both bills authorize spending but do not appropriate it. Those are separate processes and although they are related.

Think of the surface transportation bill as setting spending priorities that Congress will, presumably, follow.

As for those spending priorities, the Senate bill would authorize just 36 percent of what the House bill would authorize.

The Senate bill increased transportation funding for freight and passenger rail, but not as much as the House bill.

Over the five-year life of the Senate bill, transportation funding would be authorized at $34.2 billion. The current FAST Act level is $14.3 billion.

Missing from the Senate bill is the funding authorization for the grant program that Amtrak plans to use to develop its new corridor services.

The House bill would provide $25 billion for that while the Senate bill provides nothing.

Also in the House bill is $25 billion for grants for bridges, tunnels and stations. The Senate bill has no authorized funding for that grant program.

Senate authorizations for Amtrak funding in Senate bill are lower than in the House bill.

The Senate would authorize $6.6 billion for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and $10.7 billion for the passenger carrier’s national network.

The House bill figures are $13.5 billion for the Northeast Corridor and $18.5 billion for the national network.

The Rail Passengers Association asserted on its website that the authorizations in the Senate bill will be “inadequate to meaningfully add or upgrade new service beyond a handful of routes.”

That, though, may be the point of the Senate bill. It may be a statement from the Senate Commerce Committee that support for a massive spending spree to expand intercity rail passenger service lacks political support in that chamber.

It remains to be seen what will happen once both bills reach the floor of their respective chambers.

There may be amendments offered in both chambers to increase or lower individual line item authorizations.

It seems likely that a conference committee will need to work out the differences between the two competing surface transportation authorization bills.

If the two chambers are unable to resolve their differences, that might lead to yet another one year extension of the FAST Act as happened last year. Some congressional observers believe it might happen this year, too.

Spending authorizations can be highly contentious and subject to partisan differences.

That brings up another noteworthy difference between the House and Senate surface transportation authorization bills.

The Senate bill passed out of committee with bi-partisan, although not unanimous support. The House bill was more of a partisan creation.

The Senate bill does contain a number of clauses that can be interpreted as pro-passenger rail.

These include mandates, for example, that Amtrak maintain a ticket agent at stations averaging 40 or more passengers a day.

Amtrak is also being directed by the Senate bill to provide a host of additional information about a variety of issues including any plans to change the operations of long-distance or other routes.

There is also language in the bill describing the importance of Amtrak service to rural America.

These mandates appear to reflect a likelihood of Congressional support for continuing funding of Amtrak service as it exists today with, perhaps, some modest service increases and enhancements.

The Senate committee, though, did not support the type of far-reaching and expansive additions to the Amtrak network envisioned by the carrier’s Amtrak Connect US plan.

What it all means is that despite the happy talk emanating from rail passenger advocacy groups about how intercity passenger rail service is on the verge of a transformational moment that is not a sure thing.

A lot of things are going to have fall into place and what happened last week in the Senate does not necessarily bode well for that process playing out the way some want to see it develop.

Senate Committee Introduces Surface Transportation Authorization Bill

June 14, 2021

Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last week released details about a five-year surface transportation bill authorizing $78 billion for rail, freight, safety and research programs.

The legislation, which has bi-partisan support, is designed to accompany the $303.5 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021.

The Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 was introduced on the same day that a House Committee was marking up its own surface transportation authorization bill, the $547 billion INVEST in America Act.

Both House and Senate proposals are designed to replace the current Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which expires on Sept. 30.

The FAST Act originally expired in 2020 but was extended by Congress for a year.

If Congress fails to approve a new surface transportation authorization bill by Sept. 30, it will face a situation of having to approve another extension or passing one or more continuing resolution extending the current law.

Some congressional observers believe that based on how other surface transportation bills have fared it will be a year or longer before a new bill is enacted.

Among the provisions of the Senate’s most recently introduced bill is authorization of $36 billion for rail programs.

Passenger rail would receive $25 billion of that for intercity passenger rail service.

The committee said in a statement this level of funding “protects Amtrak’s critically important long-distance routes,” while also addressing the Northeast Corridor project capital improvements backlog and encouraging expansion of passenger rail corridors with state support.

Rail funding also includes more than $7.5 billion for rail safety and improvement projects, such as a new $500 million per year grant program to eliminate grade crossings as well as increased funding for the Consolidated Rail and Infrastructure Safety Improvement grant program.

The bill authorizes $28 billion for multi-modal freight investments, including an average of $1.2 billion a year for the Nationally Significant Multimodal Freight grant program.

Other authorizations include $1.5 billion for U.S. DOT’s BUILD/RAISE grant program and $2 billion for the creation of a new program to fund projects of “national significance.”

Safety programs would be authorized $13 billion, including $6 billion for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s highway safety programs; $4.6 billion for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s commercial vehicle programs; and $500 million to improve first responder planning and training for hazardous material incidents.

DOT would be authorized $1 billion for new and existing research and development programs.

The legislation also reauthorizes and makes reforms to USDOT agencies such as the Office of the Secretary; Federal Railroad Administration ; FMCSA; NHTSA; and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Hazardous Materials Programs.

House Dems Introduce $547B Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill

June 7, 2021

Congressional Democrats have introduced a $547 billion five year surface transportation reauthorization bill.

The proposal is 80 percent higher than a $303.5 billion bill introduced in the Senate.

The House bill, named Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act. would succeed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act that expires in late September.

The House bill is expected to be marked up by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on June 9.

Among the highlights of the bill are $109 billion for public transit, $95 billion for passenger and freight rail, and $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety.

Amtrak would receive $32 billion, tripling its funding to allow for “enhanced service, Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades, and investments to renew and support service on the Northeast Corridor and long-distance and state-supported routes.

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.”