Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

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.

January Amtrak Service Cuts Seem Likely

December 10, 2021

Amtrak Service reductions in January appear to be a near certainty.

The passenger carrier’s president, Stephen Gardner, told a congressional hearing on Thursday, that the service cuts, which are expected to involve long-distance trains, are due to expected crew shortages stemming from a COVID-19 vaccination rule the carrier imposed.

Gardner said 94 percent of Amtrak workers are full vaccinated and 96 percent have received at least one immunization.

However, the company is expected to find itself short staffed as workers who have failed to be vaccinated are terminated. Another factor, Gardner said, is a wave of retirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said Amtrak also has faced slow going in hiring new workers to replace the retirees and vacancies expected to be created by those who do not comply with the vaccination rule.

Gardner said vaccination rates among workers are lowest in the ranks of workers assigned to long-distance routes.

Amtrak imposed the vaccination rule in compliance with an executive order issued by the Biden administration requiring employees of government contractors to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022.

That mandate has been challenged in federal courts and earlier this week a judge in Georgia issued a stay of the order. Unions representing workers at Amtrak and various Class 1 railroads have filed lawsuits challenging the rules imposed by the carriers.

It is unclear how these developments might affect the expected Amtrak service reductions.

Amtrak officials have been indicating for several weeks that the passenger carrier doesn’t expect to have enough fully vaccinated workers by January to support its full national network as well the various corridor services that it offers.

An announcement of which routes will see reduced service is expected to be made next week.

Those service cuts are expected to be similar to those imposed in October 2020 when most long-distance routes were reduced to tri-weekly or quad-weekly frequency of operation. The impetus for those reductions was low patronage cause by the pandemic depressing travel.

Those service reductions were restored on a route-by-route basis in last May and June.

During his testimony, Gardner said the long-distance route service cuts are expected to be temporary with full service restored by March.

In some crew bases that serve long-distance routes, Gardner said the rate of noncompliance with the vaccine rule is relatively high.

Passengers whose trips will be disrupted by the service cutbacks will be contacted and offered the opportunity to rebook their trips.

The hearing was held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Rail Subcommittee hearing and was titled, “Leveraging Infrastructure and Jobs Act: Plans for Expanding Intercity Passenger Rail.”

Charting the Obstacles to Passenger Rail Expansion

November 15, 2021

Last in a three-part series

During the week that leaders in the House of Representatives were struggling to push approval of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act over the finish line, CSX and Norfolk Southern fired another shot across Amtrak’s bow.

The two Class 1 passenger carriers asked the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to dismiss a case brought by Amtrak last spring seeking to have regulators compel the freight carriers to host a new rail passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The Gulf Coast corridor proposal is a harbinger of what lies ahead for other proposed new Amtrak services that could be funded by the IIJA. It is a sobering cautionary tale.

Funding for operating and capital expenses is already in place for the 150-mile New Orleans-Mobile route that until August 2005 hosted Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida.

CSX, which owns most of the route, has been dragging its feet on the proposed New Orleans-Mobile service for more than five years. At one point it demanded $2 billion in route infrastructure work.

In their STB filing, CSX and NS said they would withdraw their opposition to the new service if Amtrak pays for 14 capacity improvement projects the carriers say are needed.

In a fit of hyperbole, the Class 1 carriers said Amtrak service without these improvements would cause “systematic failure” to their freight service, most notably adversely affecting first mile, last mile freight service to shippers. These assertions would be comical were they not so serious.

For years Amtrak’s host railroads have demanded expensive infrastructure improvements as the price of agreeing to service expansion, including daily service for the Sunset Limited and Cardinal, or new service on a now freight-only route.

Many a service expansion has been stymied due to these demands for capital improvements, which Amtrak usually cannot afford.

The underlying conflict before the STB is about more than whether passenger trains are going to operate between New Orleans and Mobile and how much Amtrak and its state partners will have to pony up for infrastructure improvement projects.

Ultimately, it is about rules and whose interests those rules favor.

Amtrak and rail passenger advocates want rules that provide an easier path to service expansion in the face of host railroad resistance.

The host railroads want to maintain the status quo of being able to dictate the terms of access. They dislike having to deal with political pressure seeking to force them to accept passenger trains that they view as having the potential to interfere with their freight operations. They dislike having foisted upon them something they view as contributing nothing to their primary reason for being, namely providing transportation of freight.

I’ve written about this issue before and you can follow this link to read more: https://wordpress.com/post/akronrrclub.wordpress.com/61853

If Amtrak loses the STB Gulf case or gets a mixed decision that could curtail how much service expansion it is able to achieve.

But even a favorable decision for Amtrak may not be enough. NS and CSX and/or the Association of American Railroads are likely to go to court to seek to overturn that ruling or get it modified. They have the resources to litigate for as long as it takes to get the rules that they want.

From a rail passenger advocate perspective, the STB case is about serving the public interest. Rail passenger advocates make the assumption that additional intercity rail passenger service by definition does that.

From a host railroad perspective, the STB case is about maintaining control of its own property and protecting its competitive position in the transportation industry.

This is not to say host railroad resistance can’t be overcome. It is matter of on whose terms these disputes will be settled and how much that will cost. It is why the STB case could be critical to the success of the Amtrak ConnectsUS plan.

There are other potential obstacles standing in the way of passenger rail expansion.

The Amtrak ConnectsUS plan is predicated on state and/or local governments taking over the operating expenses of the new corridors described in the plan.

Amtrak has proposed paying up to 90 percent of those costs initially and fronting money for capital projects to establish stations and do host railroad-demanded infrastructure work.

The Amtrak share of operating costs will eventually reach zero over a six-year period.

A key question is whether Amtrak or the FRA will move ahead on projects in which the state(s) to be served by a new route fail to commit to picking up their share of a route’s operating costs.

The Amtrak ConnectsUS plan seems built on the belief that once the new services are up and running the states served will recognize their value and provide funding. Amtrak seems to be hoping that public pressure will lead to continued state funding of the service by the states served.

But what if they don’t? Many of the proposed new corridors are in states that have never funded Amtrak service. Why would they want to do so now?

The American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 contained $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail projects that did not require a state match.

In January 2010 Ohio received a $400 million grant to launch the 3-C Quick Start project.

In that year’s gubernatorial election, Republican John Kasich actively campaigned against the 3C project and Republicans who controlled the Ohio General Assembly expressed concerns about Ohio having to pay $17 million for operating costs.

After defeating incumbent Ted Strickland, a Democrat, Kasich killed the 3-C project. Ohio Republican legislative leaders in a move that was not well publicized at the time created rules that made it highly unlikely that Ohio would be able to use the federal grant to establish the 3-C Quick Start project.

The U.S. Department of Transportation took back the grant minus the $2 million Ohio had already spent. That money was disbursed elsewhere, primarily to California.

Ohio was not alone in spurning ARIA funding for rail passenger service. Projects in Florida and Wisconsin also were killed by incoming Republican governors.

The rules for grants the FRA will be awarding from IIJA funds have yet to be written although the IIJA enabling legislation establishes some criteria as described earlier in this series.

It is not difficult, though, to image that what happened in Ohio in 2010 could happen again when it comes to developing new passenger service envisioned by the Amtrak ConnectsUS plan.

Some new passenger services may result from IIJA funding, but the scope of expansion might be more modest than what rail advocates are envisioning.

Another obstacle could arise in 2023 when the 118th Congress is seated.

Just as what happened in Ohio in 2010, the 2022 election season is likely to feature candidates pledging to repeal or restrict how funds from the IIJA are used. Passenger rail could find itself in the cross hairs of those attacks.

Historically, the party that holds the White House in a president’s first term loses seats in Congress in the next mid-term election.

With Democrats holding paper-thin margins in the House and Senate, it would not take much for Republicans to gain control of one or both chambers in the 2022 elections.

If that happens, the environment for passenger rail in the 118th Congress likely will be quite different than it has been in the 117th Congress.

As pointed out in the first installment of this series, realizing the full potential of the IIJA on passenger rail service expansion will require appropriation of funds by Congress.

It is difficult to imagine a GOP-Controlled Congress being receptive to spending billions on new rail passenger service.

Republicans tend not to favor expansive and expensive government programs. Many GOP members of Congress identify as fiscal conservatives and they often oppose government-funded passenger rail of any kind.

Some of Amtrak’s fiercest and most persistent critics are conservative think tanks and many GOP members of Congress align with their views when it comes to transportation policy.

President Joseph R. Biden will still be sending appropriation proposals to Congress in January 2023 and 2024 and his administration probably can be counted on to recommend friendly budgets for passenger rail.

Yet Congress will have the final say on how much money passenger rail receives. A Republican-controlled Congress will not be inclined to give Biden any victories he can point to if he seeks re-election in 2024.

It’s not that all Republicans are opposed to intercity passenger rail. Amtrak’s national network has survived as long as it has because enough GOP representatives and senators have voted in favor of continued funding for it. Some of them have advocated for maintaining the existing Amtrak service in their states.

Republicans and Democrats have philosophical differences when it comes to how to spend public money and what to spend it on. There is nothing sinister about that. It is just a divergence of viewpoints about the role of government at the federal, state and local levels.

This includes differing views on the role government has to play in transportation policy and what modes of transportation should benefit the most from government investment.

But even putting that aside, there are limitations as to how much either party is willing to spend on rail passenger service.

In the 50 years of Amtrak’s existence, many Democratic administrations and Democratic-controlled chambers of Congress have failed to provide the type of reliable dedicated funding of rail passenger service that advocates and Amtrak have sought.

It is one thing to marshal political support to maintain the status quo of the existing intercity rail network and quite another to build support for the type of expansive additions to the network that rail passenger advocates favor.

There just seems to be too many forces that have kept intercity rail passenger service from developing into something more than a boutique form of transportation. The IIJA has not vanquished those forces.

The passage of the IIJA and its historic levels of passenger rail funding may thus turn out to be an aberration rather than a transformation to a new world order in which the nation’s rail passenger network undergoes a substantial expansion to resemble something from the 1950s.

There is too much entrenched opposition from interests who fear passenger rail’s gains will come at their expense.

This dynamic be can be seen at the state level where lawmakers must approve a balanced budget every year and passenger rail funding is weighed against the importance of other needs.

Those competing interests were on vivid display in Ohio in 2010 in the controversy over the 3-C Quick Start project.

Aside from a potentially hostile political environment and host railroad intransigence, the success of passenger rail programs funded by IIJA are linked to how well or how poorly the law is implemented.

The potential of the IIJA to influence rail passenger service is a long game and over the course of it there are bound to be changes in priorities among Amtrak managers, members of key congressional committees, and state and local transportation agencies.

Those changes will affect what does and doesn’t get done.

At this point there is much anticipation and expectation among rail passenger advocates about what could happen now that the IIJA is in place.

But expectations are not reality. It is a lesson passenger advocates know all too well. For once there is reason to be optimistic that good things are going to happen. From a passenger rail perspective, some good things will happen with IIJA funding.

It is just that what IIJA is able to achieve may not be as far-reaching as many passenger rail advocates want to believe.

It is far from a sure thing that we are on the cusp of a new era or a second rail revolution.

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.

Congress OKs Extension of FAST Act

October 30, 2021

Congress this week approved another extension of the legislation that authorizes federal transportation spending.

Lawmakers extended the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act through Dec. 3, which means that legal authority for federal agencies to dole out federal transportation dollars remains in effect until then.

Without the extension, those financial allotments would have been temporarily suspended on Nov. 1.

The House passed the extension on a 358-59 vote and the Senate adopted the extension by unanimous consent.

The FAST Act originally expired on Oct. 1 and this is the second temporary extension it has received.

A new surface transportation authorization law is included in the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act – better known as the infrastructure bill – that was approved by the Senate last summer and is now pending in the House.

A vote on the infrastructure bill was delayed on Thursday due to infighting among Democrats that is linked to another dispute over the size and scope of a budget reconciliation package.

Transportation Authorization Caught in Political Gridlock

October 7, 2021

Seeming lost amid the ongoing developments in the U.S. House of Representatives over the infrastructure bill and next fiscal year’s spending plan was the expiration of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act on Sept. 30.

The law authorizes funding for various federal transportation programs including funding for highways, public transit funding and Amtrak.

As has happened in other years, including 2020, Congress has approved a temporary extension of the FAST Act.

That legislation was signed by President Joseph Biden on Oct. 2 and maintains funding for road and transit programs for a month.

However, the extension won’t provide any new funding to state departments of transportation and some U.S. Department of Transportation workers will be temporarily furloughed.

The Senate’s five-year transportation authorization is included in the infrastructure plan

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.