Ross Capon and Sean Jeans-Gail
November 1, 2011
Earlier today, the Senate passed a $108 billion transportation budget by a 69-30 vote that would protect most surface transportation programs from serious cuts. Passage of this “minibus”—a package of three appropriations bills—is the next step in setting funding for the rest of Fiscal 2012.
It appears that the Senate’s Amtrak numbers are the best that we can get. It is important that they hold. However, there is a serious danger that House-Senate negotiations could result in a compromise that puts Amtrak below the Senate number even though that number is already very tight and likely to force layoffs and some deterioration of service, though not outright service cuts.
For Transportation Nation, Todd Zwillich writes, in “Senate Approves Austere Transpo Spending Bill; High Speed Rail Funding Plummets”, that a no-increase bill is actually a step back:
It funds most transportation, transit and highway programs at or near levels for the Fiscal year that ended Sept 30. But when factored for inflation, it amounts to cuts to many programs. That’s largely because of new spending caps in place after Republicans and Democrats agreed to cuts during the federal debt limit fight last summer.
One big loser: High speed rail. The Senate bill has a mere $100 million for President Obama’s high speed rail initiative. While $10 billion has already gone to the program through stimulus and other spending, Congress is getting set to essentially zero it out for 2012. House Republicans have shown no appetite to fund high-speed rail further.
Zwillich certainly has a point. As much as NARP appreciates the Senators who fought—and fought hard—to get the $100 million in high-speed rail funding into the bill, it’s a pittance compared to the government investment provided to other modes. What’s more, this vote came on the same day as the release of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new business plan that shows constructing the line would create one million new construction jobs.
And it’s not just high-speed rail. There are some victories in the rail portion of the bill, including $15 million in preliminary funding for the Gateway Project, which would build new rail tunnels under the Hudson River. But the $1.48 billion provided for Amtrak ($544 million for operations, $937 million for capital and debt service) barely allows Amtrak to maintain existing levels of service, much less prepare for surging ridership. Coming in a year when Amtrak broke records with 30.2 million passengers, it raises serious questions about whether the 112th Congress has a grasp on what needs to be done to prepare a foundation for American economic competitiveness in the 21st century.
—Ross Capon and Sean Jeans-Gail