I hope everyone hoisted their celebratory beverage-of-choice in the wee hours of Saturday morning as, just after midnight, the House finally passed the Senate version of the surface-transportation reauthorization that has morphed into the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA). The Jobs Act represents the biggest Federal investment in passenger rail in this country in its history and is an enormous victory for this Association, its members, AND our hardworking staff that has spent countless hours educating members of Congress and their staffs, supplying information and data, and suggesting provisions for the package that would help America’s passengers.
Yes, Virginia, it really IS Infrastructure Week this week.
But if you think it’s all done and we can all go home, think again. Take a last gulp of that beverage and roll up your sleeves, because we’ve only got six months to shift our focus to ensuring that the record-making sums – an average of $8 billion per year for Amtrak alone during the next five years – are spent wisely and well.
Why six months? That’s when the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration have to submit their plans to Congress on how they’ll use this investment to transform passenger rail in America. Section 22308 of the Jobs Act (officially HR 3684) charges DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg with delivering a plan within 180 days of the Act’s passage to “establish a program to facilitate the development of intercity passenger rail corridors.”
In practical terms, that means the Federal Railroad Administration will spell out how eligible entities can make proposals to start routes and corridors, and how the criteria will work for choosing winners. And, even more practically, that means if you really want to put yourselves on THE Map, right now is the moment to sharpen your pencils and be ready to submit a winning proposal, probably by the first week of May or so.
Broadly speaking, Congress has already laid out what a winning proposal will look like – and in Section 22308 they’ve highlighted a lot of the factors your Association has used for years to get projects on to our own list of priorities we share with policymakers.
They include things like whether the proposed route had already been identified as part of a regional planning study, is part of a State’s rail plan, ridership, capital requirements, trip times, anticipated public benefits (an important addition to the calculus), the level of readiness of the operators and the community to accept Federal funds and existing support from operators and host railroads.
There were also some really significant new criteria added which Rail Passengers’ staff has supported for a long time, including specific callouts for providing benefits to rural communities, enhancing “regional equity and geographic diversity,” serving underserved, low-income communities or areas of “persistent poverty.” This is all extremely welcome and a great way to move the conversation away from the simpleminded cost/benefit analysis mindset that has stymied so much new service for so many decades.
Who’s eligible to propose service? Amtrak, States, groups of States, entities implementing interstate compacts, regional passenger rail authorities, regional planning organizations, political subdivisions of a State, federally recognized Indian Tribes, and “other public entities” if DOT agrees to recognize them.
The race is on to envision new services, and to propose them during a mid-term election year in a way that prevents anti-rail forces from repealing or restricting the money we’ve just approved to make a difference in the lives of rail passengers. We have 180 days. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.