Posts Tagged ‘surface transportation authorizations’

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

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.

Infrastructure Bill Would Make Amtrak Policy Changes

August 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Passes INVEST Act

July 6, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Committee Puts Brakes on Amtrak’s Expansive Vision

June 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Committee OKs Transportation Bill

June 18, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Committee Releases Draft Surface Transportation Reauthorization Legislation

May 25, 2021

A U.S. Senate Committee has released draft legislation for a $303.5 billion surface transportation bill for federal fiscal years 2022-2026.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 is to be considered by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on May 26.

It proposes a 34 percent increase in spending over the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act that expired in 2020 and was given a one-year extension to Sept. 30, 2021.

The bill is supported by committee members of both parties including Chairman Tom Carper (D-Delaware and Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia, the ranking minority committee member.

The bill proposes $245 million for the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Program for each of fiscal years 2022-26 and removes the requirement that at least half of the funds “must be for the installation of protective devices” at crossings.

Funding for Operation Lifesaver, work zone safety grants, and safety clearinghouses would be consolidated.

In a change affecting public transportation the bill adds eligibility for the construction of a bus rapid transit corridor or dedicated bus lanes.

Another change requires a study of “forecasted travel demand data compared to actual observed travel.”

That information is to be used by state and metropolitan planning organizations to forecast travel.

The U.S. Department of Transportation would be directed to establish a pilot program to demonstrate a national motor vehicle per-mile user fee.

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.

Congress Eyes Stop Gap Funding Bill That is Expected to Extend FAST Act for a Year

September 17, 2020

Congress is expected to take up next week a continuing resolution that would enable the federal government to stay open past the expiration of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The bill is also expected to contain a one-year extension of the surface transportation law, known as the FAST Act, which also expires at the end of this month.

News reports from Washington have indicated that the length of time the continuing resolution would cover has yet to be determined.

Some members of the House and Senate have favored a mid-December expiration date while some Democrats have pushed for an expiration date of next February.

Leadership of both parties is said to be in favor of a one-year extension of the FAST Act and neither party wants to see a government shutdown.

Extension of the FAST Act would be needed to continue payments to Amtrak, public transit and highway fuel tax money for road construction projects.

Some transportation trade groups have sought to use the extension of the FAST Act as an opportunity to increase the amount of money authorized for transportation programs.

A coalition led by the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials, and the American Public Transportation Association is seeking $37 billion and $32 billion, respectively.

The Rail Passengers Association has called for Amtrak to receive $5 billion.

Although the House earlier approved on a mostly party line vote a spending plan for fiscal year 2021, the Senate has not acted and has yet to even release its spending proposals.

The House also approved its version of a new surface transportation authorization bill, but the Senate has not acted on its own proposal.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have called for a “clean” CR that extends spending at fiscal year 2020 levels but generally excludes non-appropriations provisions.

That might appear to rule out an extension of the FAST Act, but lawmakers have noted that they are willing to extend authorizations for critical programs that are expiring this fall.

The Office of Management and Budget has sent Congress a list of more than 60 such expiring programs, two of which involve health care.

Pelosi told reporters on Sept. 10 that a continuing resolution would not include any COVID-19 pandemic emergency funding.

If that stands, it would mean including such funding for Amtrak, public transit and other transportation-related programs will fall by the wayside although it could be considered in a separate pandemic aid relief bill.

Action on such legislation has stalled amid partisan bickering with Senate and House leaders on both sides have signaled that emergency pandemic relief is unlikely to be approved before the November elections.