House bills authorize increased funding for Amtrak, High-speed rail

Two bills introduced last week in the House of Representatives would authorize increased funding for Amtrak's capital and operating expenses and create new sources of funding for developing high-speed rail corridors in the United States. The first bill, H.R. 6003, the "Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008" is the companion bill to the Lott-Lautenberg Amtrak bill passed in the Senate last October. It authorizes $14.4 billion for Amtrak over the next five years and represents the first multi-year authorization for Amtrak since the "Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997." The other bill, H.R. 6004, "The Rail Infrastructure Development and Expansion Act for the 21st Century" or "Ride-21", authorizes $12 billion of tax-credit bonds and $12 billion of tax-exempt bonds for new high-speed rail corridors over the next 10 years. This legislation will be referred to the Committee on Ways and Means, and represents a new source of funding for rail in the country, an important first step toward finding rail funding beyond the annual appropriations process.

Read the text of H.R. 6003

Read the text of H.R. 6004

Photo: Vandy607 on Flickr
The Passenger Rail Improvement Act (H.R. 6003) includes several new and important provisions:
  • It increases capital and operating grants to Amtrak, including funding to bring the Northeast Corridor back to a state-of-good repair. The bill authorizes $6.7 billion to Amtrak for capital grants and $3.0 billion in operating grants.
  • It encourages development of new state passenger corridors. The bill provides $2.5 billion for a new State Capital Grant program for intercity rail capital projects based on the New Starts transit program. The Federal share for the grants is up to 80 percent and would be awarded by a competitive process by the Secretary of Transportation.
Of interest to those in the Northeast, it includes:
  • In Section 209, the creation of a Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission, made up of Amtrak, U.S. DOT, and the Northeast States to jointly develop recommendations for short-term and long term capital investments in the Northeast Corridor and improve operations. This will help states, the commuter agencies, and Amtrak to work together to develop and implement a long term vision for the Corridor that returns the infrastructure to a state of good repair, increases capacity and reduces trip times.
  • And the Acela Service Study, which authorizes $5 million to determine the infrastructure and equipment investments needed to achieve shorter trip times in the northern and southern ends of the Corridor.
A controversial provision of the bill is Section 502, which establishes a Northeast Corridor request for high-speed rail proposals. This directs the Secretary of Transportation to issue a request for proposals for finance, design, operation of a high-speed rail system between Washington, D.C. and New York. We assume that this is a high-speed rail corridor on a separate right-of-way than the existing Northeast Corridor. This language is adapted from a previous piece of legislation introduced by Rep.John Mica (R-FL) to develop new high-speed rail corridors. While the focus on developing true high-speed rail in the Northeast is laudable, we hope that this won't distract from the immediate priority of bringing the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair and getting the most capacity, speed and reliability out of the existing Acela service.

Section 502 was the subject of much discussion at the May 14 hearing on Amtrak authorization by the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. A video of the hearing can be viewed on the House T&I Committee website.

The Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility, a coalition affiliated with America 2050, was represented at the hearing by Kevin Corbett, Vice President of Corporate Development at DMJM Harris-AECOM. You can download Mr. Corbett's testimony here.