Update on Amtrak’s cuts, potential emergency funding, and our path forward now
Photo: An Acela 21 trainset being tested near Glenolden, PA by emd6453
The Alliance is tracking three major initiatives in Congress that are critical to the future of U.S. passenger rail. Here’s an update regarding the FY2021 appropriation, a COVID-19 relief package, and the FAST Act reauthorization.
The federal fiscal year ended Sept. 30, and Congress avoided a shutdown by passing a continuing resolution that funds most programs, including Amtrak, at 2020 levels through Dec. 11. President Trump signed it last Thursday.
The short-term bill did not the include the language we hoped for prohibiting cuts to Amtrak’s long-distance routes.
That means service on Amtrak’s core network will soon be slashed to just three times a week. The Northeast Corridor (NEC) will likely be affected as well. Amtrak’s CEO, William Flynn, testified in September that Amtrak would resort to “drastic measures” unless Congress appropriated additional funds by Oct. 1.
Amtrak’s decision is a serious blow. These routes contributed 45 percent of Amtrak’s revenues from March through July of this year, versus 21 percent in the same timeframe last year. The cuts will not only leave riders stranded. They’ll hollow out the national network so severely that it might never recover.
Continuing pressure is critical since December 11 is just two months away. And there are strong incentives for Congress to act, since the long-distance trains have deep and broad bipartisan support.
In June, nine Republican and seven Democratic members of the Senate sent letters to Amtrak, asking it to explain proposed service cuts and the metrics it will use to resume normal service. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, noted that the cuts will hurt “hundreds of communities and small towns already devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Last week the House passed a special appropriation, or “stimulus” bill, with $2.4 billion in emergency funds for Amtrak—including $1.4 billion for the Northeast Corridor and $1 billion for the national network. It also has $32 billion for transit agencies. And it prohibits cuts to the long distance trains.
But the bill’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain. The Senate has so far resisted the spending levels proposed by the House.
In an attempt to stop massive layoffs underway at the airlines—and frustrated with the larger bill’s prospects in the Senate—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that support was imminent and tried to push through a bill to help only the airlines. She needed—but failed to get—unanimous consent to move the bill quickly.
President Trump signaled his support for passage of a new stimulus package before the election, tweeting over the weekend that Congress must come together and “get it done.”
Pelosi’s efforts are a clear signal that the airlines are Congress’s top priority. Rail advocates must demand that Amtrak be included in any airline relief bill.
FAST Act Reauthorization
The FAST Act, which governs transportation policy, also expired last week.
Congress extended it by one-year in the continuing resolution. Unlike Amtrak, highway funding was re-appropiated for the full year–including a direct subsidy of $13.6 billion for the Highway Trust Fund.
The punt by Congress on the FAST Act is both bad news and good news.
On the negative side, it ensures that the stranglehold of car-related infrastructure on federal spending priorities will continue for at least another year.
More positively, it means that rail advocates can continue organizing the political will to push through real, systemic change in the FAST Act legislation next fall. Rep. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House transportation panel, noted that “we can continue to work on a long-term transformational bill that . . . moves our transportation system into the twenty-first century.”
Earlier this year, the House passed a nearly $500 billion infrastructure bill that called for $60 billion in rail investments—a 400 percent increase over the current FAST Act spending on railroads. It also proposes sweeping changes to current transportation policies—for example, major investments in alternative fuels, electrification, and other responses to the challenges of climate change.
The Senate has failed to take up the bill. But the legislation establishes the House’s priorities moving forward. And it sets the stage for negotiating the substance of the FAST Act reauthorization over the course of the coming months.