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The New Rail Bill: You Asked the Questions, NARP Has the Answers

December 3, 2015

Readers have responded to NARP’s posts on the recently introduced FAST Act—which is already halfway to becoming a law—with a lot of really good questions. We wanted to make sure we took the time to give you the answers.

On the Amtrak NEC authorization: how much of the critical repairs (catenary, tunnels and bridges) is this amount be likely to cover?

This question is best answered in two parts:

1.) More has been authorized for Amtrak than in previous years, and that is a positive trend for the Northeast Corridor. Of course, “authorized” is different than “appropriated.” The FAST Act essentially gives passenger rail advocates a “hunting license” to go get funding for the programs the FAST Act has created during the annual budget battles (and, with caps on discretionary spending, there will be battles). This is why NARP has worked so hard toward securing a dedicated source of funding.

2.) With the understanding that the funding number is better, it’s clear that $2.6 billion over five years won’t be enough to significantly address the $52 billion state of good repair backlog facing the NEC (a figure that doesn’t even account for the cost of necessary capacity expansion, e.g. the $20 billion new Hudson River rail tunnels). Drafters of the bill will point to provisions that push Amtrak to keep NEC revenue for NEC infrastructure upgrades. But revenue and federal grants still only amount to $1.5 billion per year, which simply isn’t enough.

Short answer: funding is better than it was, but investment must increase further to step increased delays and breakdowns on the NEC.

Amtrak National Network: does this cover capital, operating or both?

Traditionally, the National Network has been funded as part of Amtrak’s operating grant. However, the FAST Act authorizes a new structure for funding Amtrak, disregarding the capital/operations divide for one based on business lines. It’s hard to provide an apples-to-apples comparison, and it’s hard to predict how Congressional Appropriations Committees will respond within this new structure.

Of course, unlike the NEC, infrastructure costs are included in financial reporting for the National Network as part of the usage fees Amtrak pays to host railroads.

Federal-State partnership for state of good repair: what are the requirements for tapping into this fund?

Grant applications must come from a state (including the District of Columbia); a group of states; an Interstate Compact; a public agency or publicly chartered authority established by one or more states; a political subdivision of a state; Amtrak, acting on its own behalf or under a cooperative agreement with one or more states; or any combination of the entities described above.

The Federal Railroad Administration will need to develop and implement a program for issuing grants to applicants on a competitive basis. However, given its recent experience with the HSIPR programs, the agency should be in a stronger place to quickly and effectively this task.

Consolidated rail infrastructure and safety improvement: Your explanation of the PTC support makes it clear that the funds will come through Highway Trust Fund. Can the Consolidated fund be used for this as well, or is PTC support limited to the HWTF? What about FTA funding of PTC on commuter lines?

PTC projects are eligible under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program. It will be a competitive grant program, so there’s no way of determining.

Based on our reading of the bill, the $199 million provided for PTC by the Highway Trust Fund is a one-time, FY 2017 payment. There are no further FTA funds specifically designated for PTC.

Can any of these funds be used to build new high-performance corridors, like the proposed Southeast Corridor, for both freight and passenger?

Yes. The Consolidated Rail Infrastructure & Safety Improvements program specifically targets these sorts of improvements, and the FAST Act requires the U.S. DOT to issue a request for proposals for high-speed rail projects—including financing, design, construction, operation and maintenance.

However, with extremely limited funding, the question facing the FRA will be: is it better to invest a small amount across the entire network, or through a majority of the money into only a few projects.

Do any of these funds have "Chicago CREATE" written into them, either explicitly or implicitly?

CREATE is not explicitly referenced. However, one would expect CREATE to fare well under the Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair and Consolidated Rail Infrastructure & Safety Improvements programs.

Are any funds specifically targeted at either "true" high speed (150 MPH and up) or "enhanced" speeds (110-125 MPH)?

There are no funds specifically designated for high-speed rail, but high-speed rail projects are eligible for all three grant programs.

With limited funding, one would expect improvements to conventional speed service to be favored over high-speed rail projects.

Is there any mention made, or preference given, to public-private partnerships?

The FAST Act is riddled with provisions directing the U.S. DOT and Amtrak to request proposals from the private sector to take over passenger rail services, or launch new services.

However, while the bill clearly wants private involvement, it’s much lighter on the “public” side of the partnership equation. Without more public skin in the game—that is, government funding—it’s extremely unlikely private sector companies will invest billions of dollars in complex, multi-year transportation projects.

What's happened with transit and commuter rail?

The FAST Act increases the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides $61.113 billion over the life of the bill, roughly an 18 percent increase over the life of the bill.

Significantly, the FAST Act preserves the high-density states formula program, which will protect a number of commuter railroads and transit systems from hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts.

The American Public Transit Association (of which NARP is a member) has an excellent summary of the transit provisions on their website.

I'm guessing the Gulf Coast study will end up looking purely at how much it would cost to make a single daily train (averaging 40mph) that hits the stations required, despite such a train being only useful to a tiny percentage of the theoretically served population.

Your comment more-or-less describes the Sunset Limited East restoration report Amtrak submitted in 2009.

However, from the time we’ve spent speaking with passengers and elected officials along the Gulf Coast, NARP can promise that these communities are working for something more. The FAST Act directs the work group to “evaluate all options for restoring intercity rail passenger service in the Gulf Coast region,” so expect to see some creative solutions.

As ever, implementing those solutions requires a predictable, dedicated source of funding.