STARTER Act 2.0 Looks Like a Non-Starter for Rail

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Senior Republicanr, House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee.

Congressional Republicans have presented their own infrastructure proposal in response to the $1.9 trillion bill supported by Congressional Democrats and the Biden-Harris Administration. Their bill, sponsored by Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Ranking Member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Ranking Member of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, has almost no rail content.

The Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform, Technology, & Efficient Review (STARTER) Act 2.0 “provides more than $400 billion over five years—the largest percentage increase for these programs in the past quarter-century—for the federal highway, transit, and motor carrier and highway safety programs,” Graves and Davis said in a press release. The bill calls for a streamlined process for environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a long-held goal of Republicans, who have consistently objected to lengthy reviews that they claim delay highway projects and other measures they support. “Streamlining the federal permitting and environmental review process absolutely must be a part of an infrastructure package,” Davis said.

“Republicans want to work together on bipartisan infrastructure solutions, but in order to reach that goal, key principles must be addressed in this process,” Graves said. “The STARTER Act 2.0 puts forward our Republican principles; provides historic levels of funding for our roads, bridges, and other surface transportation infrastructure; and ensures that we invest those funds wisely and efficiently.” 

There was no mention of the word “rail” in the statement, which implies that “roads and bridges” are established “Republican principles,” but rail infrastructure is not.

The STARTER Act 2.0:

  • “Authorizes more than $400 billion over five years—the largest percentage increase for surface transportation programs in the past quarter-century.
  • “Prioritizes proven programs that address core infrastructure functions—by improving our core system of highways and bridges, facilitating commerce, and focusing on safety and efficiency.
  • “Streamlines project delivery—by cutting red tape to reduce project delays and costs, putting federal dollars to work faster to improve our transportation system.
  • “Meets rural America’s infrastructure needs—by investing in small and rural communities, where 71% of public road mileage runs.
  • “Ensures flexibility for states and non-federal partners—by giving states more decision-making authority to meet their own unique infrastructure needs.
  • “Fosters transportation innovation and technology—helping to improve transportation efficiency, safety, resiliency and the environment.
  • “Works to sustain the Highway Trust Fund (HTF)—by recognizing that continued reliance on fuel taxes is not a long-term solution to HTF solvency.
  • “Supports building more resilient infrastructure—because every $1 invested in mitigation and resiliency saves $4 to $11, reduces risk and saves lives.”

While Democrats would probably not object to the last three bullet points, the bill clearly asserts the primacy of highways over other modes, and the preference for rural areas—places with high concentrations of Republican voters—over urban areas, where many Democrats live.

Part of the Republican legislative package is Title III, relating to “public transportation” and titled the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2021. It contains 13 sections (numbered 3001 to 3013) and occupies Pages 101 to 122 of the 268-page bill. 

The entire bill can be downloaded here:

A ten-page summary, with provisions about “public transportation” at 4-6, can be downloaded here: 

In short, the bill would favor the private sector and rural areas over urban, and specifically include grants for bus facilities, without any such specific provision concerning rail. The summary does not mention rail at all.

While much of the text of Title III proposes tweaking the language in the provisions that now govern grants for transit purposes under Title 49 of the United States Code, it would leave the basic structure intact for grants: 

  • §5307 (urbanized formula grants).
  • §5309 (capital improvement grants, including for new starts and infrastructure for additional capacity on existing lines).
  • §5310 (assistance concerning mobility for seniors and persons with disabilities).
  • §5311 (rural and “small starts” grants). 

Funding under §5311 can include operating assistance, but the other provisions allow capital grants only.

Some of the changes proposed in the Republican bill:

  • Section 3002, which would modify the existing §5307, “reduces burdens on high performing transit agencies by implementing a risk-based approach to transit agency triennial reviews” and “requires public transportation authorities that are proposing service reductions to consider proposals from a private contractor to continue the service with no negative impacts to employees’ salaries or benefits.” That provision would make it easier for transit authorities, essentially all of which are in the public sector, to farm their operations out to a private-sector corporation. Without savings on labor costs, though, it is unclear how much agencies would actually save by such contracting, if anything. Some advocates have claimed that the primary advantage that contractors hold is being able to use non-union drivers or operators at lower wage rates, although there may be a trend in the other direction. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) recently took its local streetcar and bus operations back from Transdev, after turning those operations over to Veolia, Transdev’s predecessor, in the wake of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina had done to the city and its infrastructure in 2005. It is generally well known that private-sector entities can give “campaign contributions” to candidates, while public-sector entities are not allowed to do so.
  • Section 3003 “increases the maximum federal and total estimated net capital costs for Small Start projects by $100 million,” doubling it from the current level. That section also “establishes the Rural Starts program to assist to small projects in non-urban areas.” There is already such a program titled “Rural and Small Starts” under §5311, however. Other provisions show a marked preference for directing funds to rural areas, even though existing rail transit is found almost entirely in urban areas under the jurisdiction of §5307. 
  • Section 3004 would modify existing §5310 in that it “provides states and local governments greater flexibility by eliminating the requirement that dictates a minimum spending level on certain activities and allows funds to be reallocated to non-urban areas at the recipient’s discretion.” 
  • Section 3005 “provides greater flexibility and supports greater mobility in rural areas by increasing the federal share of project costs for projects located in qualified opportunity zones, in medically underserved areas, or areas with medically underserved populations.” 
  • Section 3006 would provide transportation to hospitals and health care facilities not accessible by transit.
  • Section 3007 would provide for technical assistance and workforce development for rural and tribal systems. 
  • Section 3008 also favors private-sector transit operation. It “increases mobility by expanding the types of entities that have reasonable access to federally funded public transportation facilities to any private or charter operator” and “requires federally funded public transportation facility operators to consider the benefits to the existing public transportation system and respond to requests for access within 90 days.” Both would have that effect. The proposal also purportedly “increases flexibility and reduces regulatory burdens by allowing the Secretary to provide regulatory waivers, deferrals, or establish a simplified compliance process for very small transit agencies or transit agencies that receive funds under two programs, without compromising safety to lives or people. It requires the Secretary [of Transportation] to submit an annual report detailing requests for waivers, deferrals, or simplified compliance; and actions taken during the prior year.” This provision would also favor private-sector over public-sector entities, under the banner of increasing “flexibility.” The final provision also “establishes a new financial threshold and simplifies the process for the sale of transit vehicles at the end of their service life.” That amount would be 20% of the cost of acquisition,” apparently a fixed percentage that would always be applied.
  • Section 3013 “allows public transportation authorities that receive expedited project delivery grants to employ private entities to operate the transit system,” another boost for the private sector. 

There are other provisions designed to benefit rural areas at the expense of urbanized areas:

  • Section 3009 “increases set-asides from the urbanized area formula grants program for small, transit-intensive communities.” 
  • Section 3010, concerning grants for bus facilities, changes set-asides for states and territories from a dollar amount to a percentage, and “increases the set-aside for competitive grants for bus and bus facility projects in rural areas and establishes a rural set-aside for the low or no emission grants program (Low No Program), and allows Low No Program projects in rural areas to include passenger vehicles equipped with any technology that reduces energy consumption or harmful emissions, including compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas.” 
  • Section 3011 “eliminates the program that apportions funding based on high-density state formula factors, which results in a program that provides funds to only 7 states.” That language constitutes a direct attack on grants for big-city transit systems in a few states, where many riders use those major systems, and are also states where many of the residents are Democrats. While Democrats might go along with the No Low idea of reducing harmful emissions, there seems to be little else in these provisions they could tolerate.
  • Section 3012 concerns “Innovative Mobility and Technology Deployment Grants,” a concept that appears neutral on its face, but that depends on the details behind its implementation. 

Title VI of the overall bill concerns such grants, and only one category concerns “advanced public transportation systems,” whatever that means. The others concern technology such as autonomous motor vehicles.

Section 7004, part of a title that concerns “resiliency,” mentions transit only once, modifying 49 U.S.C. §5324: “Establishes that funding provided under the FTA’s Emergency Relief Program for mitigation activities supports projects that are cost-beneficial and will reduce actual risk.” That determination would be left to the Secretary of Transportation, and the provision gives no guidance for making such a determination. 

Much of this bill’s language is outside the purview of rail transit. That is due in part to the lack of rail under the jurisdiction of the Rural and Small Starts Program under §5311, which the bill would modify as described here. More generally, there is very little mention of “trains” or “rail” in relation to passenger service. The only provision that specifically relates to rail is §8001, which would keep freight cars manufactured by Chinese SOEs (state-owned entities) like CRRC out of this country, purportedly due to concerns about sensitive technology.

While there was little mention of rail generally, including freight, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) issued a statement supporting the bill: “President and CEO Ian Jefferies applauded the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Republicans release of their surface transportation reauthorization legislation … Consensus around the need for significant, forward-looking infrastructure investments continues to gain speed. The newly introduced STARTER Act 2.0 is a thoughtful effort to responsibly address our current funding challenges, improve project delivery and make meaningful progress on a VMT (vehicle-miles-traveled) fee, which could provide more sustainable funding for the Highway Trust Fund. Railroads encourage members of Congress and the Administration to keep working toward a bipartisan solution that will help our economy compete today and in the future … Railroads have long supported restoring the Highway Trust Fund to a user-pays system and moving longer-term to a system that accounts for all users’ impact on the infrastructure they use such as a VMT fee. The STARTER Act 2.0 encourages additional states to launch VMT pilot programs and builds on the success of existing programs. The legislation would also enhance data collection and analysis to aid discussions about implementing a national VMT program in the future.” 

VMT is apparently enough of a hot-button issue for the AAR to support what is a highway-oriented bill that contains very little for rail. While many transit and environmental advocates have called for a VMT-related allocation of costs to highway users as an alternative to a levy on carbon-based motor vehicle fuels, that does not explain the AAR’s concern. The AAR statement fails to address the importance, especially to non-motorists and low-mileage motorists, of the use of general tax revenue to pay for maintaining the highway system.

At this writing, neither the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) nor Amtrak issued a statement concerning the Republican legislative proposal.

It appears from the Republican proposal that the GOP and the Democrats view the concept of “infrastructure” very differently. The latter view it broadly, including many forms of “infrastructure” that do not originate from civil engineers, and which include the social and economic aspects of implementing infrastructure. In contrast, the Republican bill concentrates on the most traditional form of infrastructure in the American mind, particularly the rural American mind: highways. 

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.