Budget Threatens Passenger Rail Modernization

Malcolm Kenton, National Association of Railroad Passengers , April 14, 2011

With Congress cutting spending left and right, one of the casualties has been President Obama’s high-speed rail initiative. The loss of $2.8 billion in funding is a major blow to the program.

The next few months could be a do-or-die moment for supporters of efforts to build a 21st-century transportation infrastructure in the United States. If opponents of improved passenger train service get their way, Americans will face rising fuel costs with few alternatives to costly car travel.

House Republicans’ proposed budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year contains no new funding for the federal High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program, and rescinds $400 million in funds that had been awarded to Florida’s Tampa-Orlando bullet train, but were turned back by Gov. Rick Scott.

The HSIPR program, created by a 2008 law and capitalized with $8 billion from the 2009 Recovery Act, consists of grants awarded on a competitive basis to states, groups of states, or Amtrak to pay for capital projects aimed at making intercity passenger train service faster, more frequent, more reliable and safer. This includes building new world-class high-speed rail systems, as well as making meaningful upgrades to existing rail infrastructure and equipment to greatly enhance current Amtrak service.

The latter type of investment, often deemed higher-speed rail, is just as important as the former, as it is a cost-effective way of giving more Americans the choice of train travel. This builds the domestic production capacity and the train-riding culture necessary for the U.S. to begin to approach Europe in terms of the energy-efficient choices available to travelers.

The elimination of the program from the 2011 budget unwisely stunts the growth of a program that has already begun to prove its worth.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which administers HSIPR grants, has been criticized, even by train supporters, for getting money out the door too slowly. Despite that, a recent Government Accountability Office report confirms the agency has moved remarkably fast, given difficult circumstances the agency faces. The FRA’s program has only been active for a little over two years, during which time the FRA expanded its mission from safety oversight to grant-making.

America’s freight railroads carry most of the nation’s passenger trains and coordination with freight schedules proves especially daunting. Even though HSIPR investments usually expand capacity and improve reliability for freight transport, private railroads are wary of agreements that might limit their ability to move a growing volume of cargo. Despite these tough bargaining conditions, four of the six major US freight railroads have already entered into agreements with states and Amtrak to commit to meeting specific passenger train performance standards.

The projects that the FRA has already awarded promise to create over 50,000 jobs and are already stimulating economic development in the communities served. Among these projects are an extension of Amtrak’s frequent Boston-Portland, ME Downeaster service to Brunswick, ME, where developers are already investing in a walkable commercial corridor near the Amtrak station that is slated to receive service next year. The railroad supply and construction industry nationwide has enjoyed a significant boost in employment and contracts.

In ignoring these successes in spurring economic growth, Congressional Republicans are misinterpreting the rejection of HSIPR grants by Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida to argue that no state government wants to be “burdened” with the ongoing operation of poorly patronized trains. On the contrary, the vast majority of states are eager for more Federal investment in passenger rail because they see that recent investments are already producing returns.

So far 23 states, DC, and Amtrak submitted applications seeking a total of $10 billion for a piece of the $2.4 billion that FRA will redistribute after Florida rejected it. For every notice of funding availability the FRA issues, the amount applied for has exceeded the amount available by at least a 2 to 1 margin.

Though the high-profile rejections by a few governors make headlines, many more states are eagerly demanding the money because they see passenger rail as a smart investment.

If we are going to meet the 21st-century challenges of population growth and petroleum scarcity, we must dramatically ramp up investment in passenger trains—a transportation method unmatched in capacity, efficiency, safety and comfort.

NARP has been leading the charge to win the level of investment necessary to put America on track to a more secure, livable, and sustainable future. Please consider asking your Members of Congress to oppose these draconian cuts to high-speed rail programs, transit funding, and upgrades to the Northeast Corridor.


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