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What the FY23 Omnibus Means for Passengers
December 21, 2022 by Sean Jeans-Gail

Congressional leaders released the text of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 omnibus to fund the government yesterday, with the House and Senate expected to vote on final passage by end of week. Appropriators included significant funding for passenger rail and transit grant programs, which will come one top of guaranteed capital funding included in the five-year Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIL).

Importantly, the bill also includes increases in funding for Amtrak and transit operations, which will help stave off some of the service cuts that transit agencies have been warning about in the face of reduced ridership and revenue resulting from a post-pandemic shift in commuting patterns.

In short: the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) section provides $106 billion for the Department of Transportation, $3.4 billion above FY2022. That number includes $2.45 billion for Amtrak—below the $3 billion requested by the White House and the $3.3 billion requested by Amtrak—but $121 million above what the railroad received in FY2022.

What it means: So, is $2.45 billion a good or a bad number for Amtrak?

While Rail Passengers Association targeted a higher number for the National Network, we believe this is a positive outcome for Amtrak passengers based on the fierce level of competition for limited T-HUD dollars.

We’d like to thank everyone who contacted their elected officials throughout 2022—thanks to YOU, we were able to deliver thousands of messages to Congress at key points in this legislative cycle. Special thanks goes to our Council of Representatives and everyone who took part in our Spring Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C.

The bottom line is a $121.6 million increase in operational funding for Amtrak will allow the railroad to continue its hiring push. That will shore up existing services and allow for the hiring of more engineering and administrative personnel. The bill also authorizes Amtrak to use operational funds to partner with other eligible entities on the development of new corridors.

With the passage of BIL, Amtrak went from starvation rations to a healthy funding ecosystem almost overnight, and the railroad needs to ramp up its capacity to efficiently manage upgrades to tracks, signaling systems, bridges, tunnels, and train stations. It must also manage a generational procurement process to renew its aging fleet of railcars. Rail Passengers believes that BIL was a turning point in the history of U.S. transportation, and we must develop the knowhow within the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Amtrak to competently and quickly invest ten-plus billion dollars each year; this bill advances that goal.

Red flags: That doesn’t mean there’re no problems with the bill. Specifically, transportation leaders in Congress may be trying to do too much with the limited National Network grant funding on offer. The bill authorizes up to $66 million to allow Amtrak to help with the development of new routes. However, given Amtrak’s struggles to restore the pre-pandemic frequencies and staffing levels, one could reasonably question how much leeway exists in the National Network operating account. Fortunately, the bill also includes protections for long-distance service. Still, Rail Passengers will be watching closely how the money is spent.

(There’s also a $5 million set-aside for maglev, but that’s a bad penny that appears in every budget. Hats off to their lobbyists, who will be one of the few beneficiaries of this funding.)

The numbers:

$2.45 billion for Amtrak, including:

  • $1.26 billion for Northeast Corridor Grants; and
  • $1.19 billion for National Network Grants;
    • Includes the $50 million “Southwest Chief set-aside” (not the official name), an artifact of former-Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson’s attempt to sever the route with a “bus bridge” across Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico; and
    • Up to $66 million can be used for to support planning, capital costs, and operating assistance for projects included in the Corridor Identification Program.

$1.05 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration, including:

  • $44 million for railroad research and development;
  • $100 million for the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Rail grant program; and
  • $560 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program, of which
    • Not less than $150 million shall be used for development of new passenger rail corridors;
    • Not less than $25 million shall be used for the development and implementation of measures to prevent trespassing;
    • $5 million shall be used for maglev;
    • $30.4 million shall be used for Congressionally Directed Spending (popularly known as ‘earmarks’); and
    • $5 million shall be used for workforce development training.

$16.9 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, including:

  • $13.6 billion for Transit Formula Grants to address transit state of good repair; and
  • $2.6 billion for Capital Investment Grants, to create new transit routes nationwide ($387 million above fiscal year 2022).

The fine print:

  • None of the National Network operating funds can be used by Amtrak to discontinue, reduce the frequency of, suspend, or substantially alter the route of any long-distance route (except in the case of an emergency or a planned maintenance outage);
  • The bill allows CRISI funding for commuter rail projects, authorizing the transfer of funds by the USDOT to the appropriate agencies to be administered under public transportation statutes; and
  • Congress again included a “sense of Congress” section to emphasize the importance of the National Network to the nation (another artifact with its origins in Richard Anderson’s tenure at Amtrak), stating:
    • (1) long-distance passenger rail routes provide much-needed transportation access for 4,700,000 riders in 325 communities in 40 States and are particularly important in rural areas; and
    • (2) long-distance passenger rail routes and services should be sustained to ensure connectivity throughout the National Network.

Congressionally Directed Priorities: The omnibus included several projects directly sponsored by Members of Congress, including:

  • $2.1 million for Hanford Intercity Rail Station Community Safety and Accessibility Enhancement project (SJJPA)
  • $12 million for New Haven Line- Track Speed Improvement Phase 1 (CT-DOT)
  • $10 million for L.A.’s West Santa Ana Branch (Metro)
  • $7 million for LIRR’s Forest Hill platform extension (MTA)
  • $2 million for New River Valley Passenger Service Extension (VPRA)
  • $1.2 million for Newport News Transportation Center (VPRA)
  • $1.6 million for Vermont Amtrak Stations Rehabilitation Phase 1 (VAT)
  • $1.8 million for Bellows Falls Intermodal Transportation Center Rehab (VAT)
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