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Transformational Rail Title Passes Out of House Committee on Transportation, Heads to House Floor and Senate
June 10, 2021 by Sean Jeans-Gail

The INVEST in America Act (HR 3684) passed out of the House Transportation Committee early this morning by a 38-26 vote. The five-year, $547 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill includes a historic $95 billion investment in passenger and freight rail in the U.S. That figure includes $32 billion for Amtrak, which would triple the railroad’s current funding levels, sparking a renaissance for America’s rail passengers.

“In the last 27 years, [the U.S. added] 30,511 new freeway lane miles in the hundred largest urbanized areas. That’s an increase of 42 percent. And by the way, the cost of congestion during that time period has gone from $25 billion to $166 billion,” Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said during his opening statement. “We have to look at alternatives. You can’t pave over the whole country.”

The marathon markup took 17 hours to get through, with votes finishing shortly before 5AM. The bill was approved by a vote of 38 yeas to 26 nays.

“We applaud the visionary work done by Chairs DeFazio and Payne and the rest of the committee,” said Rail Passengers President & CEO Jim Mathews. “Now, we call on the full House and the Senate to advance the important passenger rail policies and funding levels included in this bill.”

Anti-Rail Amendments Defeated

A raft of anti-rail amendments were filed by a handful of House GOP members the evening before. Rail Passengers staff and supporters, in conjunction with allies on the Hill and other stakeholder groups, were able to turn back all of them.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) alone filed 22 anti-rail amendments. These amendments attempted to strike a wide array of new programs, including a long-distance customer enhancement program, a new passenger rail-dedicated grant program, a prohibition on the use of federal funds for the expansion of the Amtrak network beyond the current network, language to require a more geographically balanced Amtrak Board of Directors, and many more. None of Rep. Perry’s amendments were approved.

Rail Passengers was particularly concerned by an amendment offered by Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas. The amendment (Crawford 38) would’ve struck Section 9204 from the INVEST Act, which gives Amtrak the ability to enforce its legal right to preferential dispatching on freight railroads’ right-of-way. This right has been on the books since 1971, but rarely carried out in practice.

“Freight train interference is the leading cause of delay to Amtrak passengers – more than 1 million minutes of delay to Amtrak passengers in 2019, or the equivalent of 1.9 years,” wrote Jim Mathews in a message to our supporters. “Data show it has nothing to do with congestion, but just priorities; freight rail volumes fell over 10% from 2006 to 2019, but on-time performance for Amtrak passengers worsened during the same period. Sec. 9204 gives Amtrak a way to enforce its right to preferential dispatching, which has been the law for over 50 years. Rep. Crawford’s amendment would take that away."

Fortunately, thanks to the organizing work of advocates, the Crawford amendment was defeated by a roll call vote.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) offered two anti-high-speed rail amendments -- one to eliminate set-asides for HSR planning work, and another to redistribute federal funds previously awarded to California’s HSR project to a set of undefined rail projects. Both amendments were defeated.

Not all amendments offered were negative. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) offered a successful amendment to establish a University Rail Climate Institute.

Next Steps

Following passage out of the T&I Committee, House leadership will now look to schedule floor time to clear the bill ahead of the July 4th break. While the House Democrat advantage narrowed during the last election cycle, the bill is projected to pass without any serious obstacles.

From there, the Senate Committee on Commerce will have to take up the rail title of the bill, with a markup tentatively scheduled for June 16th. Rail Passengers will work with allied Senate offices and our supporters to ensure that victories secured in the INVEST in America Act carry over into the Senate version.

Of course, rail is just one piece of the puzzle. While the Senate has already cleared the highway portion, it still has to move on transit, ports, water infrastructure, and any other component that’s looking to catch a ride on the “infrastructure bill.” The fortunes of the infrastructure bill in the Senate, as a whole, are dependent upon negotiations taking place between the White House and a group of 20 centrist Senators.

While there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of, we believe it’s important to celebrate what we’ve achieved for America’s passengers in the INVEST in America Act. Thank you to all our supporters and elected leadership who took part in the campaign to advance this historic bill through the House.

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