» Department recommends funding for new transit projects in several American cities, but its primary priority in the short term is in getting existing infrastructure up to a state of good repair. Amtrak announces it plans to increase capacity on Acela trains.
Almost a year ago, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff took a controversial stand when he argued that the public sector was not doing enough to ensure the good repair of the nation’s oldest inner-city rail systems. He pointed out that cities from New York to Chicago needed to spend tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their transportation networks — rather than spend most of their funds on expansion.
The Department of Transportation has, at least to some extent, heeded his advice and made such funding a significant part of what the White House hopes will be a greatly expanded transportation budget for Fiscal Year 2012. Of the $22.2 billion President Obama requested for the FTA specifically, some $10.7 billion would be granted for the state of good repair initiative. For cities wondering how to rebuild their aging infrastructure, this could be good news.
New capital projects, however, were not left behind. The budget would contribute more than one billion more to the New Starts transit expansion program than in 2010. The DOT’s proposed budget identifies a number of rail and bus projects around the country that it hopes to fund over the next year (see below).
And the Federal Railroad Administration would receive a major boost to implement the national rail plan. Amtrak, which introduced its own budget, hopes to latch on to renewed interest in intercity rail; the national rail company asked for $2.22 billion in funds, some of which would be used to expand capacity on the existing Acela Express. Amtrak has also indicated that it has begun planning the first phase of its 220 mph replacement for the Northeast Corridor that it revealed last fall (see end of article).
Funding for most programs would increase temporarily under this plan, falling back to more typical levels by FY 2013. The Administration is hoping to use this year’s transportation budget as a sort of second stimulus, and the $50 billion in new funding would include some measures that replicate what was seen in the first stimulus. The National Infrastructure Investments program, for instance, would fund unique transportation programs with $2 billion worth of grants, much like the TIGER program did.
|President’s Proposed Transportation Spending 2012-2017 (in billion $)|
The Department of Transportation’s funding expansion is across the board, and it benefits highways (up 70% between 2010 and 2012) almost as much as transit (up 83%). So the White House is not exactly taking a stand against roads here. Moreover, like the rest of the budget revealed yesterday, the Administration’s input is only half of the equation: The House and Senate must pass any spending bill and there is a lot of skepticism on the Republican side of Capitol Hill about any sort of increase in public investment.
Nevertheless, the reforms announced by the Department of Transportation indicate how the Administration wants the Congress to move forward on a funding reauthorization bill, and the measures proposed make sense. The Highway Trust Fund would transform into the Transportation Trust Fund, providing new, specified accounts for highways, transit, high-speed rail, and an infrastructure bank (currently there are only highway and transit accounts). Transit agencies would be allowed to use some of their federal funding for operations, something that is not allowed under current federal guidelines. And the various grant-providing programs currently offered by Washington would be simplified. These would all be meaningful, useful improvements over the existing situation.
The Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts Program
Though the FTA typically reveals which transit expansion projects it is planning to fund in its annual New Starts Report, this year recommendations were included in the Department of Transportation’s budget request. Because of the size of that proposal, and the current lack of consensus in Congress about how — or whether — to spend so much on transportation, it is possible that the agency will not be able to follow through on all of its recommendations.
Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the table below, the agency has seven projects with Full Funding Grant Agreements ensuring federal funding; nine projects ready for construction and likely to receive Washington’s dollars; ten recommended projects that are further behind in planning; and four projects that may or may not advance this year.
|Department of Transportation Proposed New Starts Spending 2012 (in million $)|
Of the projects still pending federal approval, four — one in both Orlando and Sacramento, and two in Houston — have been at the top of the federal list for aid since at least 2009. But each has struggled in preparation for construction: Orlando fought with a freight railroad and now is in conflict with the state government; Sacramento struggled with underfunding of the existing transit system; and Houston signed an unfortunate contract with a rail car manufacturer in direct violation of the “Buy America” provision required under the law.
Other projects have long been in consideration, such as Honolulu’s first rail link, Minneapolis’ Central Corridor, and San Francisco’s Central Subway. Each is very likely to move forward this year with the federal government.
The national railway company released its own budget plan in coordination with the Obama Administration’s. The agency may be behind the times, however: Though it now operates outside of the direct influence of the Federal Railroad Administration, the White House indicated last week that Amtrak funding would now be considered when the Department of Transportation is evaluating how to distribute intercity rail appropriations. This could mean competitive bidding for the rights to operate trains on the corridors which the federal government pays to upgrade.
Nonetheless, Amtrak’s $2.22 billion request for subsidies is the most ambitious the agency has been in a decade. The company wants funds to expand the length of its Acela Express trains between Boston and Washington; it hopes to buy 40 cars and add two to each of the 20 trainsets by 2014, increasing the number of available seats by 130 per trip. Amtrak already has 70 electric locomotives and 130 single-deck passenger cars for regular service under construction, financed by the stimulus.
The agency argues that the all-time ridership records it set this year — 28.7 million trips — mean that it merits more public funding.
Intriguingly, Amtrak also revealed that it was considering the first segment of the true high-speed rail line it plans for the Northeast Corridor. Along with $50 million in planning funds it hopes to receive to begin studying the Northeast Gateway Project (a new tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan), Amtrak says it is now considering how it will begin implementing what it says would be the minimum operating segment of its high-speed project, a $7 billion new pair of tracks between Newark and Philadelphia that would reduce travel times from New York to Philadelphia from 1h05 to 50 minutes.
Image above: Seattle Rapid Ride BRT bus, which would see expansion under proposed New Starts policy, from Flickr user Atomic Taco (cc)