Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Biden’

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.

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.

Amtrak Celebrates 50 Years

May 3, 2021

Expanding its network was the theme of the day as Amtrak celebrated its 50th anniversary on Friday at a ceremony in Philadelphia featuring President Joseph Biden.

Amtrak has announced a project to add service in corridors that would add up to 160 communities to its network over the next 15 years.

Amtrak CEO William Flynn said the expansion plan would provide Amtrak service to 47 of the nation’s 50 largest cities while also increasing service in more than half the 50 states.

“America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service. Amtrak has the vision and expertise to deliver it, now we need Congress to provide the funding for the next 50 years,” Flynn said.

During his remarks, Biden endorsed the Amtrak expansion plan while playing up his proposed $2.3 billion infrastructure program.

“Today we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position Amtrak, and rail, and intercity rail . . . to play a central role in our transformation of transportation and economic future,” Biden said.

Both the Biden infrastructure plan and the Amtrak expansion will need to win Congressional approval.

The Amtrak expansion plan does not include any new long-distance routes, instead focusing on short-distance corridors that in time would be supported by state and local governments.

Aside from a goal of having the new routes in place by 2035, Amtrak has not provided a timeline to begin initiating the service.

In its federal fiscal year 2022 budget request Amtrak is seeking funding to pay for the capital and initial operating costs of the new corridor services.

Biden to Help Amtrak Celebrate 50 Years

April 29, 2021

President Joseph Biden will participate in a ceremony on Saturday to mark Amtrak’s 50th anniversary.

The White House said the event will be held at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station where Biden also is expected to promote his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.

Biden became known as “Amtrak Joe” during his time as a senator when he commuted on Amtrak between Wilmington, Delaware, and Washington on a near-daily basis.

As vice president under Barack Obama Biden continued to sometimes ride Amtrak

Amtrak is expected to showcase some of its special livery locomotives during the Philadelphia event, including the Salute to Veterans ACS-46 and two P42DC locomotives that have received 50th-anniversary inspired liveries.

The latter includes the Midnight Blue No. 100 and No. 46, which has the current livery with a large 50th anniversary herald.

Other locomotives are slated to receive heritage and/or specially designed schemes, but those units have yet to be released for revenue service.

The Midnight Blue unit was released from the Beech Grove Shops near Indianapolis last weekend and was the trailing unit on Monday night’s Capitol Limited that departed Chicago en route to Washington.

In a related development, Amtrak said Thursday it is selling 50 percent off tickets to mark its anniversary.

The fares are available on select routes and come with a maximum fare of $50 per segment.

Reservations must be booked between April 28 and May 5 for travel between June 2 and Nov. 14.

More details and bookings can be done at Amtrak.com. Terms and conditions apply.

Biden Outlines $2T Infrastructure Plan

April 1, 2021

The Biden administration on Tuesday released the broad outline of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $621 billion for transportation infrastructure.

The proposal, called the American Jobs Plan, would allocate $85 billion for public transportation and $80 billion for passenger and freight rail.

“The American Jobs Plan will build new rail corridors and transit lines—easing congestion, cutting pollution, slashing commute times, and opening up investment in communities that become connected to the cities, and cities to the outskirts where a lot of jobs are these days,” President Joseph Biden said during a speech at a carpenters training facility in Pittsburgh.

“You and your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas onboard a high-speed train,” Biden said.

The plan must win approval of Congress, where it already faces Republican opposition.

Various news reports have said Democrats might use the budget reconciliation process to push it through the Senate just as they did earlier this year with a nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief bill that Biden later signed into law.

The Biden plan would boost infrastructure spending over an eight year period.

The proposal triggered positive remarks from many transportation trade associations although the Association of American Railroads was more measured in its support.

The Rail Passengers Association in particular touted the Biden plan for its potential to pay for new rail cars, new corridors, new city pairs and more frequencies on Amtrak’s national network.

RPA characterized the plan as representing a 400 percent boost in intercity passenger rail funding.

American Public Transportation Association CEO Paul P. Skoutelas described the Biden plan as a “forward-thinking investment.”

He said it will enable communities to meet growing mobility demands, create family-wage jobs, expand U.S. manufacturing and supply chains, and grow the economy.”

An AAR statement expressed concerns about how the Biden plan would be funded. Biden has proposed raising taxes on corporations.

Instead, the AAR reiterated its call for a vehicle miles traveled fee that would charge trucks based on weight or axle count and impose an emissions surcharge to fund passenger rail.

AAR did indicate support for what it termed making much-needed investments to restore highways, bridges and roads, and improve ports.

American Short Line and Regional Rail Association President Chuck Baker said his group applauds the Biden proposal overall, saying that short lines railroads “are a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure.”

Biden Talks Infrastructure Plan With Senators

February 14, 2021

A recent meeting between President Joseph Biden and four U.S. Senators provided a preview of the challenges that lie ahead for efforts to approve an infrastructure plan this year.

The bi-partisan group of Senators agreed with Biden that improving infrastructure should be framed as a way to improve the competitiveness of the United States in the global economy, particularly in competition with China.

“If we don’t get moving, they’re [China] going to eat our lunch,” Biden told reporters during a post-meeting news conference.

Biden noted that China has made massive investments in its rail network, automobile manufacturing and renewable energy capabilities.

Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) agreed that the U.S. needs to revitalize its economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was very good, very good and one reason is that I’ve known the president forever, and we’ve worked together before,” Inhofe said.

At the same time, Inhofe said he would not support a plan that is a vehicle to reduce carbon emissions, something that Biden and many Democrats are sure to seek.

“A surface transportation reauthorization bill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs to strengthen our economy, and move us to a cleaner, safer future,” said Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware) in a statement after the meeting.

Carper, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said he was optimistic about reaching a bi-partisan consensus on an infrastructure bill. He said the current surface transportation authorization law expires on Sept. 30 and Congress doesn’t have time to waste.

CDC Mandates Mask Use on Public Transportation

February 2, 2021

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an order requiring mask use for all domestic travel on public transportation.

The order applies to passengers aboard trains, planes and buses and is also applicable inside of stations, airports and bus terminals.

Transportation providers are directed by the order to use their “best efforts” to ensure mask use, including removal of passengers who refuse to comply.

Enforcement of the order will be handled by the Transportation Security Administration and other federal authorities working as needed with state and local agencies.

The CDC mandate comes after President Joseph Biden signed an executive order on Jan. 21 requiring mask use while traveling on public transportation systems.

The agency said the purpose of the order is to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Biden Makes Top USDOT Appointments

January 23, 2021

President Joesph Biden has made 39 appointments of top officials to serve in key U.S. Department of Transportation positions.

Amit Bose was named deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

He previously served as FRA deputy administrator, FRA chief counsel, USDOT associate general counsel and USDOT deputy assistant secretary for government affairs.

Bose also has served as vice president for HNTB Corporation and chair of the Coalition for the Northeast Corridor, and has been involved in the California High Speed Rail Project, Northeast Corridor Future, Southeast Passenger Rail and Build America Bureau.

Nuria Fernandez was named deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration

Fernandez most recently was CEO of California’s Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and has served in various executive positions at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Lana Hurdle, deputy assistant secretary for budget and programs, will serve as acting secretary of transportation until secretary of transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Other appointments included Casey Clemmons, special assistant, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration; Steve Cliff, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Carlos Monje Jr., senior adviser and acting chief of staff; Alex Pena, special assistant to the general counsel; Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration; Diana Lopez, senior advisor to the administrator, FRA, and Subash Iyer, chief counsel, FTA.

Additional Pandic Aid Proposed for Public Transit

January 16, 2021

President-elect Joseph Biden has proposed giving $20 billion in emergency funding to the nation’s hardest hit public transit agencies.

The funding is part of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief plan that he outlined this week.

The proposal must be approved by Congress. Plan documents said the transit aid is intended to prevent further worker layoffs and route cuts.

News reports indicate that Biden intends for the plan to be passed fairly quickly and then he will propose a broader recovery package for the pandemic-battered economy.

In a statement, American Public Transportation Association CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said additional emergency funding “is vital to the industry’s survival and will help prevent massive labor cuts and drastic service reductions.”

Biden Won’t be Riding Amtrak to Inauguration

January 15, 2021

Multiple news media reports indicate that President-elect Joe Biden will not travel via Amtrak to Washington for his inauguration on Jan. 20.

The plans to ride a train had never been officially announced.

The reports said that security concerns following a Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol led to scrapping the idea of coming to Washington by train.

Biden often rode Amtrak between his home in Delaware and Washington during his time as a member of the U.S. Senate.

One report indicated that security officers were concerned about being able to protect Biden as he arrived at Washington Union Station.