Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

House Infrastructure Bill Vote Seen by Sept. 27

August 26, 2021

The House of Representatives is expected to vote by Sept. 27 on a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that was adopted in early August by the Senate.

The plan, which received bi-partisan support in the Senate, includes $550 billion over five years for public transit and passenger and freight rail.

Passenger rail would receive $66 billion and freight rail $39 billion. The infrastructure plan also includes the Senate version of a five-year surface transportation authorization.

That authorization would succeed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act that expires on Sept. 30.

Infighting among House Democrats had threatened to scuttle the infrastructure plan or delay it. Some Democrats have demanded an immediate vote on the infrastructure plan while others wanted to use that vote as leverage to obtain more funding for various programs in a budget bill that Congress is considering.

The latter have signaled that they still consider the budget bill and the infrastructure plan to be linked, which raises the prospect that another standoff on a vote on the infrastructure bill could come next week.

More liberal House Democrats have vowed not to vote in favor of the infrastructure bill until a vote is taken on the budget bill.

Senate Approves Infrastructure Plan

August 11, 2021

The Senate on Tuesday approved the bi-partisan infrastructure plan that would boost funding for Amtrak and public transit.

The Senate vote was 69-30 to approve the $1.2 trillion plan, which includes $66 billion for rail projects including $58 billion for Amtrak. It also contains $106.9 billion for public transit.

Known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bill includes $550 billion in new funding and the Senate’s five-year surface transportation reauthorization measure.

The bill proposes nearly $845 million per year for grade crossing safety and improvement projects and an average of $5.5 billion per year for discretionary infrastructure grant programs, including $1 billion annually for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant program.

It also would enhance the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, and provide significant funding for intercity passenger-rail needs as well as research, development and demonstration projects addressing greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change.

The bill’s prospects in the House remain uncertain. Congressional observers note the House is in recess and the legislation could sit there for several months.

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 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.

Infrastructure Agreement Cuts Money for Amtrak Expansion

June 28, 2021

As details about the $978 billion compromise infrastructure plan that President Joseph Biden and a bi-partisan group of senators announced last week, the future for Amtrak service is looking less rosy than it was last March when the passenger carrier released its Amtrak Connect US plan.

Nonetheless, it’s still a promising future albeit one that is less grand in scope.

Back in the spring, the Biden administration was talking about Amtrak getting $80 billion, much of which would be used to expand its network and increase service.

But the plan announced last week contains $66 billion for passenger and freight rail to share, which means that although Amtrak will be getting a funding boost, it won’t be nearly as much as some had hoped for.

The bi-partisan plan calls for allocating over the next five years $579 billion in new spending of which $312 billion will go toward transportation.

Of the new transportation spending, public transit would receive $49 billion; ports and waterways, $16 billion; roads, bridges and major projects, $109 billion; and airports, $25 billion.

Other spending includes $266 billion for infrastructure spending on water, broadband and power.

Although the plan has bi-partisan support in the Senate, it will not necessarily have smooth sailing through Congress.

Some Republican opposition is inevitable and it remains to be seen if the bi-partisan coalition will hold and if senators in both parties in the coalition can get their colleagues to go along with it.

Already there has been one dust up in which Republicans were reported to have been angered by

Biden’s remarks that the infrastructure deal was tied to Congressional approval of a separate Democrats-only $4 trillion plan to spend trillions more on health care, child care, higher education access and climate change programs.

That plan is contingent on changing the U.S. tax code, something Republicans have strongly opposed.

During his remarks last week, Biden said he would not sign the bi-partisan infrastructure plan without also signing legislation for his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan.

After GOP discontent about that spilled into the news media, the White House backpedaled, insisting that Biden had misspoken.

“I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do,” Biden said. “I intend to pursue the passage of that plan, which Democrats and Republicans agreed to on Thursday, with vigor. It would be good for the economy, good for our country, good for our people. I fully stand behind it without reservation or hesitation.”

To win the support of some moderate Republicans and Democrats, Biden had to give up some of the funding for transportation that he initially had sought in his infrastructure plan.

 Nonetheless, a White House fact sheet about the revised infrastructure plan contends the infrastructure plan contains funding that would modernize and expand transit and rail networks across the country.

 “The Plan is the largest federal investment in public transit in history and is the largest federal investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak,” the White House said.

All of that may be accurate, yet it is becoming clear that the ambitious route expansions envisioned in Amtrak Connect US will be scaled back.

Even when the plan was announced earlier Amtrak had indicated it was a goal of what its network would look like by 2035.

Some commentators suggested the plan was more something to aspire to than a set of realistic objectives.

For its part, Amtrak was supportive of the bi-partisan infrastructure plan. “Amtrak is ready to support this vision for greater public transit,” an Amtrak spokesperson said.

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier is excited to be on the offensive instead of having to constantly defend itself and its spending. 

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, had told Business Insider in mid June that the $80 billion plan was “extremely ambitious.”

However, even getting a portion of that would be “revolutionary,” he said.

That sounds like what you say when your pie in the sky dream collides with reality.

If things work out with the bi-partisan infrastructure plan then Amtrak will have additional money to expand some of its network.

It may be that the expansions that actually come about will occur in those states that have expressed a willingness to put up money to pay for new service.

Expansion is less likely to occur in states where state officials and legislators are apathetic, indifferent or even hostile toward spending money on supporting new Amtrak service.

Aside from money, what Amtrak also wants out of Congress is better leverage against its host railroads.

That would play out in two ways. First, it would give Amtrak more power to go after host railroads that consistently delay its trains or fail to give them preference over freight traffic.

Second, Amtrak wants more legal tools to force host railroads into hosting new service.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is leading the effort to give Amtrak a right to have federal courts settle disputes with host railroads. 

“Right now they’ve got it the way they want it,” DeFazio said of Amtrak’s host railroads.

“So we’re going to change the law and give Amtrak better access.”

It remains to be seen how successful DeFarzio will be in doing this and whether those changes will withstand a court challenge that would likely be brought by the Association of American Railroads.

DeFazio is correct in saying host railroads like the balance of power they have with Amtrak and are not going to give that up willingly.

The legislative fight will play out this summer and fall, but the larger battles will take years to resolve if they ever are.

Senate Committee OKs Transportation Bill

June 18, 2021

A five-year $78 billion surface transportation authorization bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee this week.

The Surface Transportation Investment Act authorizes $25 billion for Amtrak and $28 billion for transportation construction grants.

It also includes $2 billion a year for a new program for major projects of national significance; $1.5 billion a year for Rebuilding America Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity); $1.2 billion for freight-focused Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants; and $7.5 billion for rail-related safety projects and increases funding for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grants.

The bill was approved by the committee on a 25-3 vote.

The committee turned aside a proposal by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) that the legislation propose a goal that Amtrak become financially self-sustaining.

In response, Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) said that although improved Amtrak service could lead to “a lot of economic growth and opportunity . . . without subsidies, it’s done.”

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 Committee OKs Surface Transportation Bill

June 11, 2021

A Congressional House committee approved legislation this week advancing the INVEST in America Act to the House floor.

The bill  (HR 3684), is a five-year surface transportation re-authorization act that authorizes $547 million, including $95 billion for passenger and freight rail.

Of the latter figure $32 billion is set aside for Amtrak. The Rail Passengers Association said the Amtrak authorization was triple its current funding level.

The House Transportation Committee approved the bill after 17-hour markup session on a 38-26 vote.

The legislation, if approved by the House and Senate authorizes spending but does not appropriate funding.

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.

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.”