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Bipartisan Bill, While Welcome, Falls Short [Corrected]
July 29, 2021 by Sean Jeans-Gail

[Having had an opportunity to review the draft bill text integrating the BIF and the Senate’s Surface Transportation Investment Act (STIA) of 2021, Rail Passengers has provided an updated analysis of the five-year bill.]

By a vote of 67-32, the Senate voted yesterday to officially begin work on a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $66 billion for rail.

“While any meaningful and sustained increases in passenger rail funding are important and welcome, let’s not be fooled by the headline number. The reality is that what’s really in this bill is $32 billion in additional passenger-rail funding over and above the baseline -- which is a great start, but a long way from the transformative vision put forth by President Biden,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “A lot of important work will get done with these funds if they make it to final passage, but this does not pay for the kind of expansion the U.S. needs -- one that allows tens of millions of additional Americans to choose passenger rail as a clean, energy-efficient mode of transportation.”

While the text of the five-year spending bill has yet to be finalized, broad investment figures have been released, including:

  • $110 billion for roads, including $40 billion for bridges and $17.5 billion for major projects;
  • $66 billion for rail;
  • $39 billion for mass transit;
  • $11 billion for safety;
  • $7.5 billion for Electric Vehicles (EVs);
  • $17 billion for ports; and
  • $25 billion for airports.

Rail Passengers was able to obtain specifics of the $66 billion in funding for rail:

  • Northeast Corridor (NEC) Grants – $6 billion – for procurement and deferred maintenance on the NEC.
  • Fed-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail – $36 billion
    • NEC set-aside – $24 billion –
    • Funding for capital projects to repair, replace, or rehabilitate assets to improve performance and address maintenance backlog.
  • Amtrak National Network (NN) – $16 billion – to modernize and upgrade the NN, including all 15 long-distance routes and 28 state-supported routes.
  • Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) – $5 billion – competitive grant program to improve the safety, efficiency and reliability of intercity passenger rail and freight rail; leverages local and private sector funds.
  • Railroad Crossing Elimination Program – $3 billion – competitive grant program to eliminate railway-highway grade crossings.
  • Restoration & Enhancement Grants – $50 million – grant program to initiate, restore and enhance passenger rail service; eligible projects include restoration of discontinued service, additional frequencies, extension of existing service, and establishment of new service.

Disappointingly, the bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) rail title stipulates that the $66 billion in rail funding includes the $34.2 billion passed by the Senate Commerce Committee as part of the Surface Transportation Investment Act (STIA) of 2021. This means the BIF only includes an additional $32 billion over what would’ve been authorized as part of the normal reauthorization cycle -- well below the $74 billion originally proposed by President Biden as part of his American Jobs Act. This stands in sharp contrast to the highway section, where the $110 billion for roads and bridges will be included as part of the larger $303.5 billion in Highway Trust Fund contract authority passed by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

While this bill would count as the biggest Federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation, it is far below what was originally envisioned by the White House. It is also well below what was passed by the House of Representatives, which included $110 billion in its five-year INVEST Act. The BIF funds provided will largely favor a “fix-it first” approach for the U.S. rail network, addressing maintenance backlogs and capacity expansions on the NEC, equipment procurement for the NN, and some incremental upgrades and planning work for the rest of the network. It’s hard to envision any dramatic expansion in service with the available funds, unless they are largely focused on one or two corridors.

There are, of course, many hurdles to overcome: the bill will have to be debated and approved in Senate, and integrated with the existing reauthorization bills; the Senate may then choose to integrate it with a reconciliation bill, which will have to secure a simple majority of 50 votes; and it will be passed back to the House, where many key members have criticized being cut out of the legislative process entirely.

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio hasn’t been shy in expressing his views on what should be in the bill.

“I could give a damn about the White House. We’re an independent branch of government,” DeFazio told reporters after a briefing last night. “They cut this deal. I didn’t sign off on it.”

That means there still may be hope for a more ambitious rail title in the final version of the bill—though that ultimately risks losing Senate GOP votes.

“Then we will have an informal conference, and then the bill will be over here with my name on it, and we can amend it and send it back,” DeFazio told reporters.

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