Posts Tagged ‘Federal transportation funding’

Some IIJA Transportation Funding Authorizations May Not Win Congressional Approval

December 6, 2021

Although Congress last week approved a stop-gap federal spending bill through a continuing resolution, one effect of that will be to delay approval of funding authorized in the recently approved Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The continuing resolution will extend federal funding at existing levels and, with few exceptions, ban new contracts. The resolution will expire next February.

Much of the transportation funding proposed by the IIJA, including money for intercity rail passenger service programs, is guaranteed by that legislation, but other funding programs within the IIJA are only authorizations that Congress must approve through the appropriation process.

The Rail Passengers Association reported on its website that a year-long continuing resolution could mean that as much as 20 percent of the authorized new funding of IIJA could go unrealized.

RPA said this includes authorizations for $3.9 billion in Amtrak operations and capital programs.

In a recent fundraising letter sent to RPA members, the group warned that there will be political pressure next spring to scale back federal spending.

Subject to potentially not being approved by lawmakers is funding for authorizations of programs involving grade-crossing improvements, upgrades to existing rail corridors, and the development of new passenger train services.

In an unrelated development, a key congressman who helped push the IIJA through Congress has announced plans to retire at the end of his current term.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, is chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and has been an outspoken proponent of increase rail passenger service and public transit.

The Oregon Democrat has served in Congress for 38 years. In a statement, DeFazio cited wanting to focus on his health and well being.

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.

Senate Bill Boosts Amtrak, Public Transit FY2022 Funding

October 21, 2021

Amtrak and public transit would receive funding boosts for fiscal year 2022 under a draft budget proposal released this week by the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

Funding for the national intercity passenger carrier would be $2.7 billion, an increase of $700,000 over the enacted FY2021 figure of $2 billion.

This includes $1,731,307, 307 for Amtrak’s national network and $968,692,693 for the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak received in FY2021 $700,000,000 for the NEC and $1,300,000,000 for the national network.

Including various grant programs and capital spending total passenger rail funding would be $3,444,860,000 compared with the FY2021 enacted amount of $2,581,720,000.

Public transit funding was set at $13,462,346,462 compared with the FY2021 enacted $12,959,120462.

The funding is contained in Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

Public Transit, High Speed Rail Funding May be Vulnerable to being Slashed from Budget Bill

October 13, 2021

Some congressional observers say that funding for public transit and high speed rail may be vulnerable to being cut as congressional Democrats reduce a $3.5 trillion budget bill to a lesser figure that can win approval of moderate members in the House and Senate.

The publication Rollcall reported that the House budget reconciliation bill allocated $57.3 billion to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, including $10 billion for transit and $10 billion for high-speed rail.

If that funding is cut, some members of Congress will argue that rail passenger service and public transit already are getting new funding as part of a Senate-approved infrastructure bill that included $550 billion in new spending for transportation and infrastructure.

Certainly the argument that it had some funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill will make it harder for there to be robust funding,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) when asked about transit and high-speed rail funding.

The infrastructure bill contains $39 billion in new spending for public transit and $66 billion for passenger rail.

The reconciliation bill contains an additional $10 billion each for public transit and high-speed rail. It also has $4 billion for a greenhouse gas reduction program for highways.

Democrats hold slim majorities in both chambers of Congress and have been fighting over the size of the budget bill.

They are using the reconciliation process to be able to pass a budget bill in the Senate by a simple majority to avoid a likely Republican filibuster.

Complicating matter is that some House Democrats have vowed to oppose the infrastructure bill until the House approves the larger reconciliation bill.

Advocates for public transit had pushed for the additional $10 billion in the reconciliation bill to restore what they see as a “cut” in the infrastructure bill of the originally proposed $48.5 billion for transit.

Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said the $10 billion for transit in the reconciliation bill is for a new program aimed at linking transit to affordable housing through a new grant program. “It really is unique and different,” he said.

However, Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pennsylvania), the committee’s ranking minority member, said the transit allocation in the reconciliation bill violated an agreement not to “double-dip” or spend money on programs that already benefited from the bipartisan infrastructure agreement.

“The transit money is overwhelmingly coming from the bipartisan bill,” Brown said. “No matter what we do on that, that’s not a major hit compared to the tens of billions we put in infrastructure.”

Even if the $10 billion for high speed rail now in the reconciliation bill survives, Jim Mathews, CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said that isn’t enough to launch a comprehensive high-speed rail program.

“That money is desperately needed to jump-start those kinds of efforts,” he said. “But from a more 50,000-foot level, it was a policy endorsement of an approach we really have to embrace in this country.”

Mathews fears that money for high-speed rail is vulnerable to any effort to trim the size of the budget reconciliation bill.

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the need to cut money from the reconciliation measure means “everything could be on the table.”

Tomer said in the scheme of things, the transportation items are relatively small so reducing them will make little progress toward reaching the level of cuts needed to satisfy some senators.

“There are hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending across well over 100 different authorized programs,” he said. “That’s not the place to come up with easy cuts.”

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

GOP Introduces $400B Transportation Reauthorization Bill

May 21, 2021

House Republicans introduced a $400 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill this week that would provide funding for roads, bridges and core infrastructure.

Named Surface Transportation Advanced Through Reform, Technology & Efficient Review, the legislation authorizes funding over five years for the federal highway, transit and motor carrier and highway safety programs.

“Our bill focuses on the core infrastructure that helps move people and goods through our communities every single day, cuts red tape that holds up project construction, and gets resources into the hands of our states and locals with as few strings attached as possible,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), the ranking minority member of the committee.

A news release said the legislation proposes streamlined project delivery and investment in small and rural communities.

The bill’s fate is unclear given that Democrats control the House and will have their own proposals.

FTA Changes Matching Fund Rule

February 19, 2021

The Federal Transit Administration has made a significant rule change for projects seeking to receive Capital Investment Grant funding.

The agency no longer will prohibit grant recipients from using CIG grants as part of their local funding match when applying for grants.

That prohibition, which had been imposed during the Trump administration, has been criticized for establishing barriers to certain public transit projects.

In a letter sent this past week the FTA said it will now “rely on the CIG statutory framework”to ensure that projects have met federal transportation law, the Major Capital Investment Projects Final rule, and the CIG Final Interim Policy Guidance published in June 2016.

Some congressional Democrats had accused the Trump administration of using funding policies to delay or thwart such Northeast Corridor rail infrastructure projects as replacing the century old Portal Bridge and constructing a new tunnel linking New York City and New Jersey under the Hudson River, also known as the Gateway project.

Under the new FTA policy, states will be allowed to use federal loans to cover their share of a project’s costs, something New York and New Jersey had planned to do with their federal loans in order to meet their 50 percent match of funding for the Gateway project.

Former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao had in May 2018 prohibited states from using federal loans as part of their project match funding.

Although Congress a year later prohibited USDOT from doing that, the agency continued to maintain its policy of banning use of loans for state matching funds.

Amtrak, Transit Did Well in Budget Bill

December 23, 2020

Public Transit and Amtrak did reasonably well in the legislation approved by Congress this week to fund the federal government through the end of the 2021 fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The $1.4 billion omnibus budget bill include $15.5 billion for public transportation and passenger rail, a $10 million increase from the enacted levels of FY 2020.

The funding breaks down to $2.8 billion for passenger rail and $13 billion for the Federal Transit Administration.

Amtrak’s FY2021 funding included $700 million for operating and capital projects in the Northeast Corridor.

Of that $75 million is earmarked for bringing Amtrak-served facilities and stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The national network received $1.3 billion for long-distance and state-supported trains, including $50 million for the latter.

Among the policy riders attached to the budget bill was one stating it is the sense of Congress that long-distance passenger rail routes provide much-needed transportation access, particularly in rural areas.

The long-distance passenger rail routes and services should be sustained to ensure connectivity throughout the national network.

Another rider sets aside $100 million to support the acquisition of new single-level passenger equipment in proportion to the use of this equipment for Amtrak’s NEC, state-supported, and long-distance services.

The bill “reminds” Amtrak that Congress removed the prohibition on the use of Federal funds to cover any operating loss associated with providing food and beverage service on Amtrak routes.

That action was part of a one-year extension of federal surface transportation authorization legislation approved last September.

Amtrak also was directed to “continually review and evaluate the locations and trains that may be eligible for private car moves, update the guidelines for private cars on Amtrak if additional locations or trains meet Amtrak’s criteria, and notify private car owners of these changes.”

In other budget provisions, the Consolidated Rail Improvement and Safety Improvements program received $375 million for rail projects of which at least $75 million is to be used for projects that support the development of new intercity passenger rail routes including alignments for existing routes.

Not less than $25 million is to be used for capital projects and engineering solutions targeting trespassing.

The Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair program received $200 million to repair, replace, or rehabilitate qualified railroad assets to reduce the state of good repair backlog and improve intercity passenger rail performance.

The Restoration and Enhancement Grants program received $4.7 million for initiating, restoring, or enhancing intercity passenger rail transportation.

Of the $13 billion appropriated for the Federal Transit Administration, $2 billion is to be used for for Capital Investment Grants and $516 million for Transit Infrastructure Grants.

The bill reestablishes an 80/20 cost share split between the federal government and state government for the CIG program.

More Details About Bill That Extends FAST Act, Enacts Stopgap Federal Funding for FY2021

September 25, 2020

As reported earlier, the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extensions Act will extend the Fixing America’s Transportation Act for another year and keep federal funding flowing through Dec. 11.

The bill, which was approved by a large margin in the House and is expected to receive Senate approval and be signed by President Trump, had a few items of substance for intercity rail passenger service but excluded much of what many rail passenger advocates wanted.

By extending the surface transportation authorization for a year, it ensured that Amtrak and public transit, not to mention highway construction funding, would continue.

Amtrak is expected to receive through December a prorated share of what it was appropriated in fiscal year 2020.

That means $138 million for the Northeast Corridor and $256.4 million for the national network.

The bill also eliminates a requirement that Amtrak food and beverage service make a profit.

The so-called “Mica Provision” was a legacy of former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica who often railed against the cost of Amtrak’s food and beverage service.

However, Amtrak’s plans to reduce the operation of most long-distance trains to three times a week are not expected to be halted by the legislation.

The Rail Passengers Association wrote on its website that passenger rail largely was shut out by the bill, which it described as protecting the status quo.

The legislation also transfers $3.2 billion in general funds to the Mass Transit Account, which ensure the Federal Transit Agency will be able to process grants to transit agencies.

It also halted a $6 billion across-the-board cut of transit formula funds by eliminating the Rostenkowski Test in FY2021.

But RPA noted that extending the existing FAST Act for a year means there will not be a dedicated passenger rail trust fund and that authorizations for Amtrak funding for FY2021 remain at FY2020 levels.

RPA noted that without higher authorizations it would be unlikely that Amtrak would receive the $5 billion in funding for FY2021 that it sought.

That is the amount the passenger carrier said it needed to continue operating most long-distance trains on daily schedules.

Amtrak’s original funding request for FY2021 had been just over $2 billion.

In its post, RPA said the legislation failed to resolve any of the questions raised by Amtrak’s plan for tri-weekly service and made no changes to the service return metrics that Amtrak has established for a return to daily service next year.

The legislation also transfers $10.4 billion in general funds to the Highway Trust Fund and transfers $14 billion in general funds to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

Amtrak’s FY2021 funding will be hammered out later this year, probably in the lame duck session of Congress after the November elections.

Congress Moves to Keep Federal Funding Flowing in FY2021, Extend Transportation Authoritzation

September 23, 2020

Congress took the first step on Tuesday toward approving a continuing resolution to keep federal funding moving past the end of federal fiscal year 2020, which concludes Sept. 30.

The House of Representatives approve a continuing resolution on a 359-57 vote.

Included in the measure was a one-year extension of the current surface transportation law, which also expires on Sept. 30.

The extension will assure continue federal funding of highway construction projects as well as public transit and Amtrak.

However, the action by Congress this week also likely means that for now there will be no additional money for Amtrak and the carrier’s plans to reduce the frequency of operation of most long-distance trains to less than daily service will be implemented in October as planned.

Rail passenger advocates had fought to more than double Amtrak funding for FY2021 in order to preserve daily service on most of those routes.

The advocates had been urging Congress to approve additional emergency aid for Amtrak and public transit in another COVID-19 pandemic aid bill.

But political differences have sunk additional pandemic assistance for now, including more aid for the airline industry.

The continuing resolution approved by the House now moves to the Senate where approval is expected.

The resolution also includes provisions to bolster the Highway Trust Fund, including a transfer of $13.6 billion from the general fund.

That includes $10.4 billion to the trust fund’s highway account and $3.2 billion for its transit account.

The House bill also includes a $14 billion transfer to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund from the general fund.

Paul Skoutelas, American Public Transportation Association chief executive officer, said the House action would provide at least $12.6 billion for transit in FY2021,

The continuing resolution will continue federal funding through Dec. 11, meaning that action on FY2021 spending is being deferred into the lame duck session of Congress after the Nov. 3 elections.

It is possible that additional Amtrak and transit funding might be taken up then.