Thursday, April 11, 2013

Obama backs rail in FY14 transport budget

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Continuing to back up his political position established in his first term, President Obama Wednesday included considerable funding for rail and rail transit projects in his proposed fiscal year 2014 budget. Longer-term, the President also is advocating investment of $40 billion in passenger rail projects in the next five years. But the proposal, while a good placeholder and a rallying marker for pro-rail forces, is unlikely to survive intact.

The President identifies $77 billion for all modes under the Department of Transportation, with $10.9 billion recommended for the Federal Transit Administration. Most of the FTA funding would aid maintenance and capital maintenance needs, but roughly $2 billion is expressly identified for capital projects.

About $6.6 billion is slotted for the Federal Railroad Administration, with $3.7 billion targeted for a National High Performance Rail System, comprised of true high speed rail (HSR) and higher-speed rail (HrSR) projects, in keeping with the Administration's approach launched in 2009.

Within the FRA's package, Amtrak is allotted $2.7 billion in the President's proposed budget, even more than Amtrak's own FY14 request of roughly $2.5 billion, with most of both proposals eyeing capital improvement.

Another $3.7 billion under the FRA umbrella is identified for a "Rail Service Improvement Program, which incorporates creating or improving passenger routes, mitigating congestion bottlenecks in the existing rail system, improving intermodal freight rail capacity, and providing future planning.

But observers, while avoiding the cliché "dead on arrival," note that the President's proposal is nonetheless unlikely to advance far in its present form.

"A President's proposal rarely is a meaningful blueprint for what eventually comes out of Congress," one Capitol Hill veteran cautions. "This is especially so this year with regard to transportation, because the new highway bill, MAP-21, will decide most transportation funding at the Republican-controlled House" of Representatives.

In addition, "President Obama has put forth similar proposals in the past, and the biggest obstacle to implementing the program remains identifying new sources of funding," says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "The Administration identifies the 'peace dividend'—money saved from drawing down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—as a major source of funding. However, House Republicans have rejected this proposal in its previous iterations."

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