Congress passed the $2.3 trillion “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021” (H.R. 133), an omnibus spending bill that includes a $900 billion COVID-19 emergency relief package as well as government appropriations for fiscal year 2021, tax extenders and other provisions. While many in the rail industry expressed appreciation—stressing that additional transit aid, for instance, will be needed—outgoing President Donald Trump did not. He refused to approve the bill—calling for higher direct relief checks to Americans and other changes—but he finally signed it into law late Dec. 27, averting a government shutdown Dec. 29.
Trump had already vetoed a defense appropriations bill; it has enough support for a Congressional override, scheduled for a vote on Dec. 28.
Among the 5,500-page bill’s transit and freight rail-related provisions:
For transit, this means:
• $13.27 billion for 49 U.S.C. § 5307 grants (including the 49 U.S.C. § 5337 formula) to urbanized areas.
• $679 million for 49 U.S.C. § 5311 grants to rural areas.
• $50 million for 49 U.S.C. § 5310 grants for seniors and persons with disabilities.
“A primary objective of the $14 billion of emergency transit funding is to ensure that public transit agencies receive sufficient funding under this bill, when combined with their CARES Act apportionments, to equal at least 75% of urbanized areas’ public transit operating costs,” the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) explained on its website. “The transit funds provided under the bill are available for operating expenses related to the response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The federal share is 100%.”
Amtrak’s $1 billion in relief includes $655 million for Northeast Corridor Grants and $345 million for National Network Grants. The bill also sets aside $284.7 million to assist states and commuter rail providers in making required payments to Amtrak.
Among the provisions on the freight rail side, for workers:
• Additional enhanced benefits under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA): There is a restoration of the federal supplemental benefit for unemployed railroad workers at $600/registration period for registration periods beginning after Dec. 26, 2020, and on or before March 14, 2021.
• Extended unemployment benefits under RUIA: There is a provision of up to 11 additional weeks of unemployment benefits for qualifying railroad workers. The availability of the 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits provided under the CARES Act has been extended.
• An extension of the waiver of the seven-day waiting period for benefits under RUIA through March 14, 2021.
The omnibus bill also includes transportation appropriations for FY 2021. It provides $86.7 billion in total budgetary resources to the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is $553 million above the 2020 enacted level. Highlights of the breakdown:
• $1 billion for national infrastructure investments (TIGER/BUILD), which is equal to the 2020 enacted level. The bill ensures parity between urban and rural grants.
• $2.8 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration, which is $27 million above the 2020 enacted level. Among the funding measures: $41 million for railroad research and development; $375 million for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements ($50 million above the 2020 enacted level); $200 million for Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair (equal to the 2020 enacted level); and $2 billion for Amtrak (equal the 2020 enacted level), which includes $700 million for Northeast Corridor Grants (equal to the 2020 enacted level) and $1.3 billion for National Network Grants (equal to the 2020 enacted level).
• $13 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, which is $47 million above the 2020 enacted level. Among the funding measures: $2 billion for Capital Investment Grants ($36 million above the 2020 enacted level) and $516 million for Transit Infrastructure Grants ($6 million above the 2020 enacted level). APTA provides a detailed breakdown.
In addition, the omnibus bill covers authorizing matters “outside the jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committee.” Among them: Tax extenders such as the railroad track maintenance credit (45G). This provision in the bill makes permanent the credit for qualified railroad track maintenance. The bill also reauthorizes the diesel emissions reduction program (DERA) until fiscal year 2024.
• APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas issued this statement: “The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), on behalf of the entire public transportation industry, urges immediate passage of the newly proposed H.R. 133, the ‘Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021.’ This bill includes COVID-19 emergency relief, annual appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, tax extenders and many other important provisions. The bill provides $14 billion of COVID-19 emergency funding for public transit and $1 billion for Amtrak. In addition, the bill provides annual appropriations of almost $13 billion for public transit, a $47 million increase from FY 2020.
“This $14 billion of desperately needed emergency transit funding is vital to the industry’s survival and is a much-needed immediate step in bolstering an industry ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The proposed legislation is a critical step in supporting public transit agencies so that they can survive and help our communities and nation recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic. However, this legislation is just one important step. APTA and the public transportation industry will continue to advocate for additional emergency funding in the new year, with at least $32 billion needed to serve essential workers and help our communities recover.”
• Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Ian Jefferies released this statement: “The freight railroad industry is pleased to see Congress reach agreement on much-needed legislation and is especially grateful that lawmakers made the successful [45G] short line infrastructure tax credit permanent. This credit provides clear incentives for smaller railroads to invest in track rehabilitation—spurring more than $4 billion in new investments in short line operations the past 15 years—and has preserved crucial first- and last-mile rail connectivity. (The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association praised on this provision on Dec. 21.) Cementing the credit provides certainty and will bolster investment in the roughly 600 U.S. short line railroads—a positive first step for policymakers keen on improving U.S. infrastructure and achieving various policy goals through rail transportation.”
• Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn issued this statement: “We thank Congress for passing the annual spending and COVID relief bill that will provide an additional $1 billion in emergency funding. While this COVID funding is intended to be a temporary band-aid that will help Amtrak and our state and commuter partners, it is critical for minimizing negative impacts to our customers, employees and service between now and the end of March.
“We look forward to working with the next Congress and new Administration on additional FY21 funding so we can restore service, bring back furloughed employees and continue our progress on vital capital projects. This near-term support, coupled with significant new investments through an infrastructure or stimulus bill to expand the Amtrak network through new corridor routes, would create thousands of new jobs, reduce our nation’s carbon footprint, and help the economy recover and flourish in the years ahead.”
• Nicole Brewin, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs at the Railway Supply Institute (RSI), released this statement: “RSI applauds Congress for passing this legislation to deliver much-needed relief for hundreds of small and mid-sized businesses in the railway supply industry as well as key funding measures to support our passenger and transit railroad partners in FY 2021. Among other provisions, the reauthorization of the paycheck protection program and the extension of the employee retention tax credit are welcome inclusions in the bill that will help sustain tens of thousands of jobs in this industry across the United States. Nevertheless, there is still work to be done and we look forward to working with policymakers in the 117th Congress to pass bipartisan solutions like H.R. 8082, the Freight RAILCAR Act, to bring back jobs, help the railway supply industry recover from the pandemic, and strengthen clean, robust rail infrastructure across the United States.”