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Senate passes infrastructure bill and budget resolution

August 12, 2021
Quick version

 Advocates for passenger rail have a lot to cheer for right now—but much work remains to be done.

  • The Senate approved a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget resolution that advances a separate “reconciliation” bill.
  • The bills include massive new funding for trains.  High-speed trains are an eligible use. 
  • Final votes on the bills are expected when Congress returns from recess in September. 
  • Your actions can still make a big difference to the passage of the bills—and to the details of the reconciliation bill. Take a moment and contact your representatives. 
  • Keep in mind that calls have an especially big impact. Personal conversations (at town-hall meetings, for example) are even better. 
  • HSRA is following these developments with a “four-track” model.
Track 1: Infrastructure bill

On Tuesday, August10, the Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that contains historic levels of funding for passenger rail and transit. Fifty Democrats and 19 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Highlights of the $66 billion in funds for passenger rail in the infrastructure bill include $6 billion for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC); $24 billion for Amtrak/state partnerships; $16 billion for Amtrak’s national network; and $12 billion for other passenger-train corridors, including high-speed trains. Go here for a detailed breakdown of the proposed investments in trains. The bill also includes $39 billion in investments for bus, subway, and commuter-train systems.

Democrats have called the bill’s funding for trains “the largest investments in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.” Although high-speed rail projects are eligible for $12 billion of the funds, no money is earmarked specifically for high-speed trains. The U.S. is the only major industrialized nation that does not have true high-speed lines rail (i.e., 186+ mph). China currently has more than 23,000 miles of HSR.

Track 2: Budget Reconciliation bill

Early Wednesday morning, the Senate also narrowly approved a budget resolution that will allow Senate committees to move forward with writing details of a $3.5 trillion “reconciliation” bill.

Some critics—including several key Democratic members of the House—are concerned that the infrastructure bill falls short on investing in climate-friendly technologies like HSR. One critic wrote on Tuesday that “the upcoming reconciliation bill, not the bipartisan legislation, is our real hope.” With the Senate’s vote early Wednesday to pass a budget resolution, that bill cleared a key hurdle and will move forward.

The reconciliation process is a tool for bypassing Senate filibusters—which have become standard for all legislation that faces partisan opposition. A filibustered bill requires 60 votes to pass. Budget reconciliation bills need only 51 votes.

The reconciliation bill has no Republican support in the Senate. Democratic House leaders say they will hold off until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill before bringing the infrastructure bill to a vote. For that reason, the fate of both bills remains uncertain.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said that Senate committees “will work closely with their House counterparts to write this legislation.” He set the week of September 15 as the goal for reviewing the full legislation.

Democrats have agreed on a broad framework for the bill that sets spending levels at $3.5 trillion. It would include investments in a wide variety of realms—from child-care and pre-K subsidies to broadband internet access to HSR.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT)—chair of the Committee on the Budget—wrote on Monday that “the time is long overdue for Congress to address the long-neglected needs of ordinary Americans,” and that “we will finally address the existential threat of climate change by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels and into energy efficiency and sustainable energy.”

HSR advocates are making a strong push right now for high-speed trains to be a major component of the national transition to “sustainable energy” initiatives.

For example, the U.S. High Speed Rail Coalition (which HSRA belongs to) has given leaders in Congress and members of the Biden administration a list of projects that would launch a “high-speed revolution” in the U.S. The list includes projects currently underway—in Florida, Texas, California, and Nevada, for example—and projects that are now in the visioning and planning states, such as high-speed lines from Boston to New York; from Indianapolis to Memphis, via Louisville and Nashville; from Atlanta to Charlotte; and from Eugene (OR) to Vancouver, B.C.

The Coalition is pushing for $205 billion in grant funding for HSR (over 10 years) in the budget reconciliation bill; and for a High Speed Rail Development Agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Bottom line? Your actions will make a big difference to the passage of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills—and to the details.

Please contact your representatives right now—and keep in mind that phone calls have an especially big impact.

Track 3: Surface Transportation Authorization bill

The authorization bill that is currently in effect (the Fast Act) passed in 2015 and was set to expire 2020, but Congress extended it for a year due to the pandemic. The authorization bill sets spending priorities and establishes the policies that govern the nation’s transportation systems.

In July, the House passed an authorization bill called the INVEST In America Act. It proposed $109 billion for transit and $95 billion in passenger and freight-rail funding. It also included key changes to policy that would promote railroad development—for example, by creating state-level barriers for spending federal dollars on new roads.

Unfortunately, that bill’s substance is gutted in the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill—which includes a new surface transportation authorization but does not include the spending levels and key rail-related policy changes of the House bill. 

The snub could emerge as a key point of tension this fall, when the House takes up the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. 

It could delay a vote on the infrastructure bill, for example, since Rep. DeFazio has called for a conference committee to work out differences between the Senate’s version and the House’s version. Or it could complicate negotiations over details of the reconciliation bill, if DeFazio and other Democrats push for elements of the INVEST in America Act to be included in that bill.

Track 4: The FY 2022 budget appropriations bill

Simultaneous with all of this, Congress is working on the FY 2022 federal budget. As with the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, the implications for trains are in flux. The budget is due by Sept. 30.

The House Appropriations Committee released summaries of several appropriations bills that will be considered soon, including the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) bill.The THUD bill proposes significant increases to rail-related funding on several fronts. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration would receive $4.1 billion (an increase of $1.3 billion over FY 2021); Amtrak would receive $2.7 billion (an increase of $700 million); and the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program would receive $500 million (an increase of $125 million).

The budget also appropriates $625 million for the new Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion grant program, which supports “projects that improve, expand, or establish passenger rail service.”