Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Budget Proposal Gets Little Reaction on Capitol Hill

February 15, 2020

A Trump administration proposal to more than halve Amtrak funding in federal fiscal year 2021 received a muted response on Capitol Hill.

The Rail Passengers Association wrote on its blog that congressional leaders in both parties are noting that there is a two-year budget agreement in effect and they expect that will guide the appropriations process.

“We’ve got the caps deal in place,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We negotiated it last year. It’s good for the second year, and we’ll comply with that.”

Nonetheless, RPA is trying to activate its members to contact Congress in opposition to the Amtrak funding cuts.

The administration’s budget proposal calls for slashing Amtrak funding from the $2 billion appropriated for FY2020, which ends on Sept. 30, to $936 million.

The budget proposal would reduce funding for the Northeast Corridor from $700 million to $325 million.

Funding of the national network would fall from $1.3 million to $611 million.

The budget document calls for the elimination of Amtrak’s long-distance passengers trains over the next five years.

Specifically, that would be accomplished through implementation of a new grant program whose objective is to encourage state and local governments to fund Amtrak service in corridors of 100 to 500 miles.

The budget document gave few details about the grant program other than it would only last through FY2015.

However, the administration made clear that it sees no future for long-distance trains.

“Amtrak trains inadequately serve many rural markets while not serving many growing metropolitan areas at all,” the budget document said. “The Administration believes that restructuring the Amtrak system can result in better service at a lower cost, by focusing trains on better-performing routes, while providing robust intercity bus service connections.”

RPA said the proposed $550 million in National Network “transformational grants” appears to be designed to help Amtrak cover the costs of multi-year labor agreements and contracts.

The rail passenger advocacy group argues that those agreements in tandem with the lost revenue from the eliminated trains and lost connections will make ending Amtrak’s long-distance network an expensive proposition.

Last year the Trump administration proposed a similar funding program that would have given states money to implement intercity bus services in lieu of passenger trains.

That idea went nowhere in Congress and the long-distance network survived intact.

The FY2021 budget proposal promised to provide details at an unspecified later date as part of the administration’s proposal for renewing the surface transportation act that expires on Sept. 30.

That document will, presumably, also provide a more complete picture of what corridor services Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation have in mind for funding with the federal transformation grants.

For more than a year Amtrak President Richard Anderson has talked up the concept of corridor services between urban centers, particularly in the South and West.

Anderson’s concept is to provide multiple daily frequencies on those routes.

In his public comments and congressional testimony, Anderson has said many cities served by long-distance routes are served poorly either through scheduling or lack of service frequency.

Amtrak executives have also in recent weeks visited state legislative transportation committee hearings to talk up the corridors concept.

An Amtrak public affairs manager spoke in Tennessee in favor of a new route between Nashville and Atlanta.

The same official also spoke in Kansas about an extension of the Heartland Flyer to the Sunflower State via Wichita.

In both instances, the Amtrak executive made clear that state and local governments will be expected to underwrite the operating losses of the routes.

During the Kansas hearing, the Amtrak executive referred to a yet to be enacted fund to help states fund new service.

The Trump administration budget proposal appears to be the framework for that fund.

Last year in response to questions raised during a congressional hearing Amtrak in a letter to senators declined to list the proposed corridors that it is studying, but indicated that it would continue to work with states that have expressed an interest in new Amtrak service.

Among the routes in states that have worked with Amtrak in recent years on service expansions are a route between Duluth, Minnesota, and the Twin Cities; an extension of Northeast Regional service to Bistol, Virginia; and a train between Chicago and the Twin Cities on the route of the Empire Builder.

There are no shortage of potential new Amtrak routes including some that have been discussed for years but failed to gain political traction.

That would include the 3C corridor in Ohio between Cleveland and Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton.

Amtrak has never served that route, although it does provide service currently to Cleveland and Cincinnati with long-distance trains.

Columbus and Dayton lost Amtrak service on Oct. 1, 1979, with the discontinuance of the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

If Congress does, indeed, follow the budget deal reached last year, it seems likely that Amtrak’s services in the next fiscal year will be the same as those now operating.

Budget proposals are more policy statements and aspirational statements than they are blueprints.

The Trump administration is not the first to call for elimination of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains.

The real action is likely to be in the political wrangling over the surface transportation renewal bill and even action on that is not guaranteed despite the looming Sept. 30 expiration of the current FAST Act.

Congress might seek to extend the current FAST act through a continuing resolution just as it does the federal budget when it fails to reach agreement on a appropriations as the current fiscal year is coming to a close.