UPDATED: Appropriation bill increases passenger rail funding

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A southbound Acela Express passes through Milford, Conn., in Metro-North territory on the Northeast Corridor in September 2016. Amtrak received a major increase in funding in Congress' appropriations bill, and transit and commuter rail could benefit from additional grants.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Ignoring calls for cuts by the Trump Administration, an appropriations bill crafted by Congress would significantly increase funds to Amtrak and a program which helps fund rail infrastructure projects.

The Senate must still approve the legislation, and President Trump has said he may veto it, which could cause the government to shut down at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday. In a Twitter post on Friday morning, the president said he was considering a veto because the bill does not fully fund a border wall with Mexico, and because it does not address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program.

The $1.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 would direct more money to passenger rail than at any time since post-2008 economic stimulus spending programs expired.

Amtrak gains in the two designated categories, Northeast Corridor and National Network, are substantial. The Northeast Corridor would receive $650 million in 2018, up from $328 million in 2017, while the National Network would receive $1.292 billion, up from $1.1 billion. In all, Amtrak funding increases from $1.428 billion to $1.942 billion.

Significantly, the lawmakers appropriated more money than the $1.6 billion authorized for 2018 in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, the first time appropriations exceeded authorized amounts for Amtrak in recent memory.

John Robert Smith, chairman of the public transportation advocacy group Transportation of America, tells Trains News Wire, “The will of Congress is clear: they are paying Amtrak to run a national system that serves all parts of the country without favoring one over the other; all routes are important.”

Amtrak President Richard Anderson says in a statement, “The increased Northeast Corridor capital funding will allow us to address many important needs along the Corridor and we look forward to working closely with the Department of Transportation on investing these funds to advance the most critical projects.”

Aside from $50 million reserved for Americans with Disability Act Northeast Corridor station improvements, exactly how much will be spent on the Gateway project and preparations to build new multi-billion dollar tunnels under the Hudson River is not specified.

But the biggest percentage gains from the previous year’s appropriation is in several federal programs that can positively impact passenger rail growth. They include:

Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements, from $68 to $593 million, which features:
—  $35 million is set aside for restoration of passenger service (for example, on the Gulf Coast).
— $250 million allocated for positive train control.
— Language which states that an applicant will not be penalized for a lack of an agreement with a host railroad, and can apply for all stages of a project in one application.

Federal/state partnership for State of Good Repair: from $25 million to $250 million.

Restoration and Enhancement Grants: From $5 million to $20 million.

Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) competitive grants, which the Trump Administration wanted to eliminate, were instead tripled in the 2018 budget to $1.5 billion, compared with the $500 million doled out in the 2017 budget. TIGER grants, such as the one recently announced to maintain the route of the Southwest Chief [See "'Southwest Chief' route wins federal grant," News Wire, March 8] TIGER grants can provide a valuable match for passenger rail, bike paths, and rural transportation improvements as well as mass transit.

Transit is also receiving signficant funding:
— Formula grants: $10.3 billion.
— New starts: $2.64 billion.
— Core capacity: $716 million.
— Small starts: $400 million.
— DC Metro: $150 million.

Note: Updated at 10:05 a.m. CDT with information on possible veto.

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