Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

Infrastructure Agreement Cuts Money for Amtrak Expansion

June 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Committee Introduces Surface Transportation Authorization Bill

June 16, 2021

Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last week released details about a five-year surface transportation bill authorizing $78 billion for rail, freight, safety and research programs.

The legislation, which has bi-partisan support, is designed to accompany the $303.5 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021.

The Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 was introduced on the same day that a House Committee was marking up its own surface transportation authorization bill, the $547 billion INVEST in America Act.

Both House and Senate proposals are designed to replace the current Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which expires on Sept. 30.

The FAST Act originally expired in 2020 but was extended by Congress for a year.

If Congress fails to approve a new surface transportation authorization bill by Sept. 30, it will face a situation of having to approve another extension or passing one or more continuing resolution extending the current law.

Some congressional observers believe that based on how other surface transportation bills have fared it will be a year or longer before a new bill is enacted.

Among the provisions of the Senate’s most recently introduced bill is authorization of $36 billion for rail programs.

Passenger rail would receive $25 billion of that for intercity passenger rail service.

The committee said in a statement this level of funding “protects Amtrak’s critically important long-distance routes,” while also addressing the Northeast Corridor project capital improvements backlog and encouraging expansion of passenger rail corridors with state support.

Rail funding also includes more than $7.5 billion for rail safety and improvement projects, such as a new $500 million per year grant program to eliminate grade crossings as well as increased funding for the Consolidated Rail and Infrastructure Safety Improvement grant program.

The bill authorizes $28 billion for multi-modal freight investments, including an average of $1.2 billion a year for the Nationally Significant Multimodal Freight grant program.

Other authorizations include $1.5 billion for U.S. DOT’s BUILD/RAISE grant program and $2 billion for the creation of a new program to fund projects of “national significance.”

Safety programs would be authorized $13 billion, including $6 billion for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s highway safety programs; $4.6 billion for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s commercial vehicle programs; and $500 million to improve first responder planning and training for hazardous material incidents.

DOT would be authorized $1 billion for new and existing research and development programs.

The legislation also reauthorizes and makes reforms to USDOT agencies such as the Office of the Secretary; Federal Railroad Administration ; FMCSA; NHTSA; and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Hazardous Materials Programs.

Amtrak Seeks $75B for New Service

May 28, 2021

Amtrak elaborated this week on its “Connect US” plan, which calls for a 15-year $75 billion federal investment to add 39 new routes and enhance service on 25 other routes.

Calling the plan “Corridor Vision,” Amtrak said it would lead to the carrier providing intercity rail passenger service in 47 of the 48 contiguous states and new stations in more than half of those states.

If implemented, the network expansion would generate $8 billion in annual economic benefits by 2035 and an additional $195 billion in economic activity resulting from capital projects during the same period.

In a letter to Congress, Amtrak CEO William Flynn outlined details of the plan, many of which have already been reported.

This includes Amtrak paying all initial costs for new or improved service but with states eventually assuming responsibility for those costs.

Amtrak proposed to pay upfront the estimated cost for stations, railcars, locomotives, and infrastructure.

Amtrak also is seeking a dedicated funding source, the Passenger Rail Trust Fund, and called for passage of the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, which would enhance Amtrak’s ability to enforce its right of operating preference over freight trains.

In an effort to prevent host railroads from stalling the launch of new routes, Amtrak wants Congress to clarify existing law that provides Amtrak has access to host railroads.

“Too often host railroads resist and stall any efforts to expand service,” Flynn wrote.

In a statement issued with a news release, Flynn said new and improved rail service has the ability to change how Americans move while providing cleaner air, reducing highway congestion and providing a more connected country.

Details of the Connect US plan are contained in a report Amtrak issued titled  Amtrak’s Vision for Improving Transportation Across America.

Among the cities that would receive new or improved service are Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Nashville, Columbus, Phoenix, and Wichita.

Amtrak said the added service could increase its ridership by 20 million riders annually.

Amtrak said the plan is not a final proposal and does not lay out a specific order or priority ranking for route development.

It said many factors, including available funding levels, post-pandemic travel demand, state interest, host railroad conditions, and equipment availability, will play a role in determining final implementation plans for the Connect US program.

If a corridor is not mentioned in the plan, Amtrak said that doesn’t mean it opposes development of that service.

The passenger carrier cautioned that just because a corridor is shown in its plan doesn’t mean it is certain to be implemented.

“The corridors proposed here are intended to be additive to Amtrak’s pre-COVID-19 route network,” Amtrak said.

Amtrak expects to implement its corridor services over a 15-year period.

The Amtrak report also sought to downplay the idea that these will be high-speed routes.

“While high speed rail service may be right for certain corridors, current state-supported Amtrak services such as the Pacific Surfliner and the Hiawatha show that intercity passenger rail can be successful with conventional operating speeds,” Amtrak said.

“As corridors which begin at conventional speeds build ridership and demand, they can be considered for future conversion to high speed service.”

Funding for Connect US would come from a variety of sources, including direct federal funding to Amtrak for corridor development and operation, and discretionary grants available to states, Amtrak and others for corridor development, the report said.

 “This vision does not propose to replace existing grant programs. Rather, it would augment them with dedicated and reliable funding from an intercity passenger rail trust fund … or other source needed to execute on a long-term vision.”

Tags: Amtrak, Amtrak Connect US, Amtrak funding, Amtrak funding request, Congress, William Flynn

Amtrak Sends Congress its Wish List

April 30, 2021

Amtrak sent Congress its wish list this week for fiscal year 2022 funding and it is quite ambitious, seeking to nearly double what Amtrak received before 2020.

The requests include funding for new corridor services, hints at expanding the frequency of operation of the Cardinal and Sunset Limited, and seeks “bold” funding for Northeast Corridor and other capital projects.

The intercity passengers carrier wants a FY2022 grant of $3.88 billion for base needs and funding to offset the pandemic’s impacts on Amtrak and its state and commuter partners.

Also requested was $1.55 billion for Northeast Corridor infrastructure projects and development of new corridor routes across the nation.

In a statement, Amtrak CEO William Flynn noted that Amtrak will soon place into service new Acela equipment and locomotives for long distance trains.

Flynn said that granting Amtrak the funding it seeks would enable it to “play a central role” in helping the nation’s economy recover from the pandemic.

The funding requests are contained in a 77-page General and Legislative Annual Report and Fiscal Year 2022 Grant Request.

As reported earlier, Amtrak proposes to pick up all of the capital and operating costs for the first two years of operation of any new multi-frequency corridor.

But state and local governments would be expected to pay at least 10 percent of costs in the third year, 20 percent in the fourth, and 50 percent in the fifth.

In the sixth year state and local governments would be responsible for all costs as allocated uniformly under Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.

However, Amtrak believes that the corridor operations will earn enough revenue after five years to make continued operation attractive.

The funding for new corridor services could also be used to support increases in service frequency for less-than-daily long distance routes and certain specific investments in corridor service at no long-term cost to Amtrak’s state partners.

The latter could include service to Canada and Mexico. All of Amtrak’s service to Canada is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The request mentions that Amtrak’s funding request also reflects funding needed to buy replacement equipment for Amtrak’s Superliner and Amfleet II fleet.

Amtrak earlier this month named Siemens to build 83 transets to replace Amfleet equipment but that is not thought to include Amfleet II cars.

Elsewhere on Amtrak’s wish list is federal legislation to give it a right to sue its host railroads for failure to provide dispatching preference for passenger trains and give the Surface Transportation Board authority to determine whether additional trains on a given route “would unreasonably impair freight transportation.”

The passenger carrier also reprised an idea from the 1980s that was never adopted of establishing an Intercity Passenger Rail Trust Fund.

If Amtrak gets its way, Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Program loans would be easier to obtain and states would be allowed to spend a portion of their Highway Trust Fund money on passenger rail.

Amtrak Long-Distance Trains to Resume Daily Service

March 11, 2021

Amtrak said Wednesday it will reinstate daily service on 12 long-distance routes starting in late May.

Trains on those routes shifted last year to tri-weekly or quad-weekly service in the wake of steep ridership declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement of expanded service came hours after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a pandemic relief package that contains increased funding for Amtrak.

The legislation also contains a mandate that routes that had daily service until last year resume daily operation and that furloughed employees be recalled.

President Joseph Biden is expected to sign the $1.9 trillion bill on Friday.

Two routes, the Chicago-New York Cardinal and New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited will be unaffected by the changes because those routes have operated on tri-weekly schedules for years.

Amtrak has already resumed selling tickets for the expanded days of operation on the 12 routes.

Trains returning to daily service on May 24 include the Chicago-Emeryville, California, California Zephyr; Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight; Chicago-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, and the Chicago-San Antonio-Los Angeles Texas Eagle.

Daily operation returns May 31 for the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited; Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans, Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited, and the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Resuming daily operation on June 7 will be the New York-New Orleans Crescent, New York-Savannah Palmetto, and the New York-Miami Silver Meteor (via Savannah) and Silver Star (via Raleigh).

In a news release, Amtrak said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be making their debut on the Silver Service trains.

The Auto Train had continued to operate daily and its operations will remain unchanged.

Amtrak will receive $1.7 billion in emergency pandemic aid, which will help fund restoration of daily service on long-distance routes.

Senate Increases Aid for Amtrak, Public Transit

March 9, 2021

The U.S. Senate last Saturday increased COVID-19 relief funding for Amtrak and public transit.

The changes were made during consideration of H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was approved by the Senate by a vote of 50-49.

The Senate increased by $1.25 billion the funding for public transit over what the House approved on Feb. 27 and also increased the funding for Amtrak over the House-passed levels.

The bill now goes back to the House for further consideration. The House passed a modified version of the legislation providing $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 emergency funding.

Although some senators proposed amendments that would have cut, transferred or removed the aid to public transit, few of those amendments received a roll call vote and note were approved.

However, the Senate did approve an amendment to make 23 public transit programs eligible for federal Capital Investment Grants.

The House is expected to take up the amended version of the bill today and if approved it would go to President Joseph Biden for his signature.

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $1.7 billion for Amtrak. That is a $200 million increase in funding from what the House approved last month.

Under the Senate version of the legislation $970 million will go toward the Northeast Corridor while the national network will receive $730 million.

The bill also provides $285 million to Amtrak “in lieu of commuter rail and state-supported route payments.”

The bill includes $166 million “to restore service on long-distance routes and to recall and manage furloughed employees.”

The breakdown of other public transit funding in the bill includes $26.09 billion for transit systems in urban areas and $317 million for grants in rural areas.

Also approved was $50 million in grants to benefit services for seniors and those with disabilities, $2.21 billion for operating assistance grants  pertaining to addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and $250 million for Small Start projects that are recipients of a CIG allocation or an applicant in the project development phase.

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.

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.

House Committee OKs Pandemic Aid for Amtrak

February 14, 2021

A congressional committee on Wednesday approved transportation funding for a COVID-19 relief bill.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved a plan put forth by committee Democrats to provide $1.5 billion for Amtrak and $30 billion for public transit.

The committee also approved a policy rider directing Amtrak to restore without 90 days daily service for long-distance trains that operated daily before last fall.

The Amtrak funding had to survive two efforts by committee Republicans to eliminate it.

The committee defeated a motion by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania) to cut the Amtrak funding from the bill.

Another committee member, Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) withdrew an amendment to transfer the Amtrak emergency funding to a highway-rail grade crossing program.

Crawford withdrew his amendment after Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) agreed to work with Crawford on the grade crossing issue in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization bill.

The bill now advances to the full House. The Senate is expected to consider a counterpart COVID-19 pandemic relief bill.

Amtrak funding as approved by the House committee would be broken down to $820,388,160 for the Northeast Corridor and $679,622,840 for the national network.

The bill directs that not less than $165,926,000 of the combined amounts of the NEC and national network is to be used to restore all long-distance service in effect as of July 1, 2020, and to recall all workers put on furlough on or after Oct. 1, 2020.

Another clause provides that not less than $109,805,000 from the combined amounts of the NEC and national network shall be used in lieu of capital payments that the state-supported routes and commuter authorities were required to pay.

Amtrak is to use $174,850,000 from the national network funds to offset amounts required to be paid by states for covered state-supported routes.

The $30 billion earmarked for public transit is to be used to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus pandemic and includes eligibility for operating expenses to prevent layoffs and avoid cuts to service.

The legislation includes mandates for how the funding it to be allocated among urbanized areas, rural areas and for services for seniors and those with disabilities.

Some of the public transit emergency aid can also be used for planning purposes.

COVID-19 Transportation Aid Levels Proposed

February 9, 2021

Democrats in the House of Representatives have reportedly settled on funding levels for transportation that would be included in a proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

Under the proposal, transit agencies would receive $30 billion, Amtrak would get $1.5 billion, airlines would receive $14 billion and airports would get $8 billion.

The COVID-19 aid funding for transit falls short of the $39.3 billion that transit systems were seeking.

Amtrak funding would nearly match the $1.541 billion that the intercity passenger carrier is seeking from Congress.

However, it exceeds the $20 million that President Joseph Biden had proposed.

Biden’s initial proposal contained no funding for Amtrak or airlines.

A House committee is expected to begin working this week on the COVID-19 pandemic aid proposal.