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The Administration Refreshes Its Push for a Major Infusion of Funds into the National Rail Program

» The Obama Administration hopes to invest almost $40 billion in new and improved passenger rail infrastructure over the next five years. Good luck getting that through Congress.

It’s an annual spectacle. The President releases his budget. The budget proposes a huge expansion in spending on surface transportation, particularly in high-speed rail. Administration figures testify on Capitol Hill, hoping to raise the specter of infrastructure failure if nothing is done. The Congress responds lackadaisically, with Democrats arguing that something should be done and Republicans doing everything they can to prevent a cent more from being spent, and ultimately no one agrees to much of anything other than a repetition of the past year’s mediocre investments.

Will things be different this year?

The question is particularly relevant because the U.S. Government’s rail investment program — its authorization for allocating funds to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will expire this year. Legislation supporting the FRA, as well as Amtrak, the national passenger rail corporation, and improvements to freight rail, is necessary to ensure continuity of funding. Previous bills have authorized funding over five-year increments. In effect, the bills set out how much Congress expects to expend over the next few years, and allows the House and Senate to avoid debating the issue for years at a time.

The Obama Administration has responded to situation by proposing a massive infusion of funds for passenger rail and the creation of a “National High-Performance Rail System.”

Total funding for rail activity, both for operating funds and capital projects, would increase from about $1.8 billion in 2013 to more than $6.5 billion in fiscal year 2014. Over the course of five years, about $40 billion would be devoted to rail improvement across the country, a massive expansion paid for with funds “saved” from ending military operations overseas. This would be headlined by a $5 billion “jump-start” stimulus for rail, part of a $50 billion infrastructure package the Administration is hoping Congress will pay attention to.

In many ways, the Administration’s bill is similar to past attempts at legislating major increases in funding for rail. In 2011, for instance, the government promoted a $53 billion plan to “win the future” with rail lines funded across the country. Yet Congresspeople reacted to the proposal with little interest — and members didn’t have to, because there was no authorization bill expiring. That’s what makes this year different.

The Administration’s proposal practically boils with ambition. Grants for new and improved rail lines would be heavily oriented (70 to 85%) towards “core express” alignments, which include only corridors where electric trains operating hourly at speeds of 125 mph and above run on their own, dedicated tracks. This says a lot about the Administration’s interest in focusing its energies on the “true” high-speed corridors, which at this time are only in development for California and the Northeast.

Grants in the proposal’s “rail service improvement program” would add up to $3.66 billion in the first year of activity but grow significantly over the course of five years, eventually reaching more than $6 billion a year. This would provide a substantial base of funds for serious rail projects.

But the initial allocations of funds would also ensure support for current rail lines. $2.7 billion in the first year of allocations would be dedicated to operating subsidies and projects that bring the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair by 2025. Operating funds for Amtrak’s long-distance trains would be maintained, but those for state-supported (short-corridor) train lines would be eliminated after five years, in line with the existing law, to be replaced by profitable operations or more state support (or elimination). Amtrak’s fleet, which is on average 27.7 years old, would be upgraded, particularly in the Northeast, by 2018.

Some funding would also be provided for expanding freight capacity, reducing congestion (such as in the Chicago area), implementing Positive Train Control (which theoretically prevents trains from running into one another), and expanding access for the disabled. Much of the support would be dedicated to corridors owned by private freight rail companies.

All of the funds the Administration has proposed for an expansion of passenger rail service would do wonders for the nation’s train network. Yet even $40 billion committed over the next five years would hardly make a dent in the cost of the California High-Speed Rail project ($70-100 billion) and a new, high-speed Northeast Corridor ($150-200 billion). If the government committed similar funds over the course of five-year increments into the future, it would take a minimum of 27.5 years to complete these projects alone, with no spending on anything else. That’s 2041 before there’s true high-speed service on both coasts — at the earliest!

It’s true, of course, that any investment in new rail service will require financial and planning aid from local stakeholders, and these projects could be completed far more quickly if they were infused with local and state funds (as is the case in California).

Between Boston and Washington, the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (NEC Commission) is tasked with developing a framework for allocating costs along the corridor. As part of that program, it has created a document that demonstrates the rail line’s critical needs and it will be looking to help Amtrak and the states better coordinate their contributions to the line.

If upgrades are going to be made to the line, it will be necessary to ensure that states along the corridor all benefit, and that they all contribute. Determining the best way for them to do that is an incredibly important task that has yet to be fully laid out. Should New Jersey, for instance, aid Amtrak in paying for a new line, if that clears capacity for New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail division? Should Delaware contribute to the cost of a new corridor if no fast trains stop in the state? How much should the states and cities along the line pay to run local trains down the intercity tracks? Before any serious aid is provided to the Northeast, there must be an agreed-upon system for Northeastern stakeholders to answer these questions.

If the FRA reauthorization provided increasing funds to a better managed railroad, assuming increasing funding from other sources (presumably including private players), there is reason to think that Obama’s program could provide substantial improvements to the nation’s foremost passenger rail corridor.

Ultimately, however, the question of whether the Administration’s proposal has any technical merit is irrelevant when there is no political backing for an increase in appropriations for rail service in the United States.

The White House’s claim that its reauthorization would be “paid for” is, quite frankly, a specious argument. To pay for infrastructure, the government wants to use money (“savings generated by capping Overseas Contingency Operations”) that it “would have spent” on foreign wars but that is no longer necessary because the country is pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet when the government is operating with a massive deficit, it’s hard to argue that that money is being shifted from one government use to another. It’s debt, pure and simple.

There are plenty of reasons to argue about the benefits of deficit spending, particularly in the midst of the continued recession, but let’s at least be honest about where the money is coming from.

There was an alternative — the Administration could have proposed a new source of revenue to pay for the program, such as an expansion in the fuel tax or the creation of a vehicle-miles travelled fee. That’s needed all sorts of transportation: The Congressional Budget Office reported last week that the Transportation Trust Fund (sourced from fuel taxes) will have a more than $90 billion shortfall by 2023 (and be operating in a deficit by 2015), imperiling any new spending on highways or urban transit.

Yet the Obama White House has shown itself hostile to any tax increase program that would affect lower- and middle-class families, and the Congress has certainly not pushed back with its own proposals. Thus the use of money “that would have” been spent on the wars to pay for the new transportation proposals. With little interest in increasing deficit spending, unfortunately, that proposal, too, is likely to go nowhere. The status quo will be reinforced.

This is a particularly sad state of affairs because the need is there, particularly in the Northeast. The FRA is currently developing a rail investment plan for the Corridor through a public consultation process, and a preliminary alternatives report was released this month, indicating a series of at least possible improvements. Amtrak, too, is desperately pushing for funds, arguing in recent weeks that the Corridor is suffering from an “investment crisis.”

Moreover, many Republicans in Congress have argued repeatedly that they are interested in funding improved rail service on the Northeast Corridor. Former House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica (R-FL) said in 2011 that “We have to redirect our efforts to having at least one success in high-speed rail in the nation. And that high-speed rail success needs to be here in the Northeast Corridor.” Though he didn’t propose any specific way to pay for those improvements, his interest is indicative of the GOP’s willingness to compromise. (And indeed, current Committee Chair Bill Shuster also has been a supporter of Amtrak.)

Perhaps the Administration’s policies should recognize this? On the other hand, the government clearly has no interest in shutting out three-fourths of the nation from rail grants.

Anthony Foxx, who will be nominated as the government’s next Secretary of the Department of Transportation this week, has proven to be a strong supporter of rail transportation in his position as mayor of Charlotte. But his ability to promote the Administration’s rail reauthorization bill has yet to be proven. Current DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, formerly a Republican Congressman from rural Illinois, has failed to produce bipartisan consensus in favor of more transportation investment over the past four years. How can Mr. Foxx, a strong urban Democrat, do so? The House remains controlled by the GOP and the Senate may shift in that direction after next year’s midterms.

There’s a lot to be excited about the rail reauthorization bill the Administration has proposed, but there is more to be skeptical of. We have a long way to go before there is solid support in Washington for more spending on rail transportation.

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Airport Congress DOT Finance Social Justice

Our Government: By the Wealthy, For the Wealthy

» Congress’ willingness to address the sequester, but only for the Federal Aviation Administration, is a disgusting sort of bipartisan agreement.

The sequester, which went into effect at the beginning of last month, cut more than $85 billion from the federal budget for this year alone. Its cuts, whose impacts will continued to be felt through 2021, were disproportionately focused on domestic programs. Public transportation, for instance, was dramatically affected: Almost $600 million was cut from funding directed towards mitigating the effects of Hurricane Sandy; another $104 million was cut from capital investment grants that fund new train and bus lines; Amtrak lost $80 million.

Other cuts, such as those to the nation’s affordable housing, Head Start, schools, and meals for seniors, are even more devastating for the nation’s least well-off.

Congress, however, has been incapable of addressing the issue, allowing the cuts to these essential programs to reinforce America’s growing concentration of wealth, low tax rates for the wealthy, and limited social welfare aid. Austerity, which is the intellectual justification supporting these cuts to federal spending, has been shown to only encourage economic stagnation — and often do so at the expense of the least well-off. Yet the national legislature has, as if in complete disinterest, sat idly by as the cuts set in.

That is, until it became obvious that the sequester was affecting the performance of the Congressional elite’s favorite program: Federal support for air travel. Congresspeople, apparently, just couldn’t support having their flights delayed.

Yesterday, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that allows the Federal Aviation Administration to transfer up to $253 million towards the air traffic control system in order to prevent furloughs that had begun this week. This morning, a large majority of House members agreed to the bill, with only a small group of mostly left-slanting Democrats opposed.

The swift and bipartisan response to the problem of slowed air travel leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. While the bill did not approve new funds to the FAA, it effectively forced the agency to shift funds around in a way to ensure that Congresspeople (and admittedly, all American air travelers) could get around the country more quickly.

There of course has been no similar rush to, for instance, shift funds away from the subsidies provided to the oil industry to support mass transit, or to shift funds away from the mortgage interest tax deduction to support affordable housing. Why? Because the Congress, in this quick response to a national problem, has shown itself to be completely concerned with government issues that affect the nation’s wealthy but unaffected by a loss of government aid to the poor. Democrats, who might have used this situation to argue for restoring essential funds for social programs, simply abdicated responsibility, mostly choosing to vote in line with the GOP here.

Federal aid to air travel has its merits, of course. But we must put in question why keeping it functional while ignoring the plight of the poor makes any sort of policy sense.

After all, air travel is largely the domain of the upper middle class and wealthy. A recent interview of U.S. residents at LAX, for example, showed that 72% of travelers who agreed to state their levels of income were making more than the U.S. median household income. Low-income people are far less likely to travel by plane than the wealthy.

Yet the federal government continues to subsidize air travel at record rates. According to the GAO, for example, air travel security provided by the TSA, which cost upward of $9 billion in 2011, has been more than 70% subsidized by U.S. taxpayers in recent years. Passengers and air carriers only commit 30% or so of the costs.

These policies amount to a shift of wealth upwards. Meanwhile, members of the House and Senate continue to fantasize about ways to further cut public transportation.