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Polemics give way to compromise on House rail bill

For the last few years, congressional debate over the nation’s passenger rail system has been a discordant tug-of-war between visions of high-speed rail and moves to privatize popular Amtrak corridors and kill operational support. The logjam appeared to break last week with a unanimous committee vote on reauthorizing passenger rail. The compromise bill recognizes the benefits of a truly national passenger rail system and seeks to improve it rather dwell on drawbacks.

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Michael Patrick.  /photos/michaelpatrick/110090972

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Michael Patrick. /photos/michaelpatrick/110090972

Most importantly, it preserves a national system of state-supported and long-distance routes and authorizes funding for the system that is consistent with the recent appropriations for Amtrak. While passenger rail certainly needs far more investment than it’s getting to truly prosper and meet the burgeoning demand, T4America was encouraged to see representatives who once had a hard time finding common ground agreeing on some important fundamentals.

Let’s get one issue out of the way up front. The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2014 (PRRIA) does indeed lower the authorized amount of funding for Amtrak by 40 percent from in the level last adopted in 2008, capping it between $1.4B and $1.5B for each of the next four years. Although that looks like a step backward, in reality Congress never appropriated the full amount of authorized funds. Because there was no dedicated revenue source passenger rail funding was subjected to a contentious debate over general fund spending each year. The new bill yields to that reality and sets funding at the levels of the last several years.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that we’ve had budget proposals in the House over the last two years that appropriated between $1.0 or $1.1 billion for Amtrak — $400-500 million less than this reauthorization proposal from the same chamber.

There are some other interesting and positive changes worth highlighting.

The bill authorizes new competitive grant programs for the Northeast Corridor and for the national network. These programs are authorized at $150 million each for the next four years. The NEC program requires that states put up their own money equal to the federal grant, and the projects that can be funded must be on a priority project list to be developed by the Northeast Corridor Commission.

The bill will take the important first steps toward restoring rail service to the Gulf Coast, a region that has been disconnected from the national network since Hurricane Katrina forced the suspension of rail service along the coast. It’s an encouraging sign that the committee recognizes the value not only of preserving our current rail network, but expanding it to serve additional regions.

Some of the overall structure for funding also changes under this bill. Congress currently funds Amtrak under two programs: operating, and capital/debt service. This year, Congress funded these two programs at $1.39 billion. The bill restructures these programs into a Northeast Corridor Improvement Fund and a National Network Account at a total of $1.412 billion. The NEC account may be used only for that corridor and permits Amtrak to reinvest operational revenue there. The idea of privatizing the Northeast Corridor is off the table, at least for now.

The bill includes several requirements intended to create greater transparency in Amtrak’s financial reporting, increasing accountability and oversight over budgets and financial decisions. Calls by some members of Congress for increased competition in passenger rail were answered with a new pilot program (limited to two routes) that will allow rail carriers that own track used by Amtrak to submit a competitive bid along with Amtrak to provide the same level of passenger service there. The winning bidder would receive the right to provide passenger service for 5 years, with subsidies that would decline over time.

This bill does not contain everything that Transportation for America has called for, however.

For example, there’s still no dedicated funding source identified, which means that Amtrak will still have to fight for funding every year in the annual appropriations process. And some of the provisions related to Amtrak’s finances and operations could lead to changes in service down the road, such as the requirement that Amtrak contract with an independent entity to develop a new methodology for determining which routes to serve.

Still, in a Congress marked by partisan gridlock, we’re hopeful that this encouraging compromise in the House can lay the groundwork for creating a dedicated funding source for rail service that will put it on the same footing as other transportation modes.

2 Comments

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  2. DJF

    3 years ago

    “””””can lay the groundwork for creating a dedicated funding source for rail service that will put it on the same footing as other transportation modes.”””

    How about a diesel fuel and electric tax on passenger trains to pay for rail service. We have a Diesel and Gas tax to pay for roads

    Or how about a per person tax on rail passengers to pay for rail service. Airlines have a tax on passengers to pay for air service