National & General
Regional & Local
After months of gridlock and bicameral bickering, House and Senate conferees unveiled a surface transportation bill compromise late on Wednesday night. And for train passengers, this unveiling will undoubtedly leave them with a resounding sense of disappointment.
The compromise bill eliminates the Senate’s rail title entirely. The only real provision directed at rail is the extension of a Railroad Grade Crossing set aside, which targets funds at improving and upgrading crossings to eliminate collisions between automobiles and trains.
While the Railroad Grade Crossing is a fine program, it’s hardly enough for a 27-month extension that will dictate how federal tax dollars are spent through September 2014. With dramatically increasing congestion and volatile oil prices, America can no longer afford its overreliance on highways.
It’s particularly disappointing given the number of good rail provisions included in the Senate’s version. Specifically:
In general, the Senate gave up environmentally-friendly provisions while the House gave up its Keystone XL pipeline and coal ash provisions as well as some Amtrak-related provisions that NARP opposed.
Particularly because of the last point above, the Transportation Equity Network is outraged. Their e-mail today stated:
Gone or gutted are important provisions from the bipartisan, Senate-passed surface transportation bill, MAP-21, that would:
In their place are provisions from HR 7—the House bill that never made it past the majority caucus—that set progressive transportation policy and equity programs back by decades.
With the release of this report, the conference committee…has missed important opportunities to create even more jobs through flexible transit operating provisions that cost the federal government nothing and to establish career pathways for low income people, people of color, and women in the transportation construction industry.
There may be one unintended upshot from this bill (which looks set to pass both the House and the Senate): because highway needs outstrip what the gas tax is providing, the U.S. Treasury will have to pay general taxpayer dollars into the Highway Account—$6.2 billion in 2013, and $10.4 billion 2014, all in. The Treasury will also pay $2.2 billion in into the Mass Transit Account 2014. That will mean that the federal government has poured north of $50 billion non-user tax dollars into highways in the last four years alone. That’s more government funding than Amtrak has received in its entire history. It is reported that another major source of funding for the two-year bill is “pension smoothing” – reducing the amount that companies must pay into their pension plans so as to increase the taxes paid by those companies.
So maybe we can finally stop hearing the “roads pay for themselves, abolish taxpayer-dependent-Amtrak”-myth constantly repeated by anti-rail forces, ad nauseum.
(But don't hold your breath.)