How Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Impacts Rail, Transit

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor

The U.S. Senate has voted 67-32 to consider a nearly $1 trillion national infrastructure package, following a compromise by President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators on key provisions, including $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion for passenger and freight rail.

The package includes $550 billion over five years for new federal investment in infrastructure. While the legislative text has not yet been released, a White House fact sheet details how the funds would be distributed:

• $110 billion for roads, bridges and major projects.

• $39 billion for public transit. This funding would “modernize transit, and improve accessibility for the elderly and people with disabilities, in addition to continuing the existing transit programs for five years as part of surface transportation reauthorization,” the fact sheet noted. The White House called it “the largest federal investment in public transit in history.” However, it is $10 billion less than what the President and the bipartisan group of senators had designated as part of their original infrastructure framework announced last month.

• $66 billion for passenger and freight rail. Of this, $22 billion would be provided as grants to Amtrak; $24 billion as federal-state partnership grants for Northeast Corridor modernization; $12 billion for partnership grants for intercity rail service, including high speed rail; $5 billion for rail improvement and safety grants; and $3 billion for grade crossing safety improvements.

• $17 billion for port infrastructure and $25 billion for airports “to address repair and maintenance backlogs, reduce congestion and emissions near ports and airports, and drive electrification and other low-carbon technologies.”

The investment would be “financed through a combination of redirecting unspent emergency relief funds, targeted corporate user fees, strengthening tax enforcement when it comes to crypto currencies, and other bipartisan measures, in addition to the revenue generated from higher economic growth as a result of the investments,” according to the White House fact sheet.

According to a New York Times report, “[A]mong those in support of moving forward [the infrastructure plan] was Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a longtime foil of major legislation pushed by Democratic Presidents. Mr. McConnell’s backing signaled that his party was—at least for now—open to teaming with Democrats to enact the plan.

“The deal still faces several obstacles to becoming law, including being turned into formal legislative text and clearing final votes in the closely divided Senate and House. But the vote was a victory for a President who has long promised to break through the partisan gridlock gripping Congress and accomplish big things supported by members of both political parties.”

The Times also reported: “Several liberal Democrats warned that they might not support the measure in the closely divided House until a $3.5 trillion budget plan including investments in climate change, health care, education and child care programs had been approved and funded.”

(H.R. 3684, the INVEST (Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation) in America Act, passed July 1 by the full House in a largely partisan vote. It includes $109 billion for transit; $95 billion for passenger and freight rail, including 32 billion for Amtrak; and $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety.)

Amtrak, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association commended the Senate’s decision to begin work on the infrastructure package. In a statement released July 29, Amtrak stated:

“We applaud the Administration and the group of bipartisan Senators for putting forward this historic level of investment in Amtrak and passenger rail. If enacted, Amtrak will work to put these funds to use, rebuilding core infrastructure, replacing equipment, and, with the FRA and state partners, bringing more Amtrak service to more people across the nation, creating thousands of new jobs and reducing America’s carbon footprint (see our Corridor Vision). While this funding is a fantastic start, we call on Congress to also ensure that Amtrak gets the on-time performance and preference from our host railroads that the law requires so we can achieve the growth in reliable service that our nation needs.”

APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas issued this statement on July 28:

“The White House today announced an Infrastructure Deal that includes $39 billion in new funding for public transportation. While we are greatly appreciative of the efforts of the White House and the group of Senate negotiators, we need to address the needs of the transit industry in the context of the imperatives of a 21st Century America. Our nation needs bold investments in public transit to advance equity issues, tackle climate change and forge a new transportation direction which will serve our growing communities, build economic competitiveness and position America as the world leader in sustainable mobility.

“This is a positive step in the right direction, and APTA is ready to continue working with Congress and the Administration to ensure we make the necessary investments to modernize public transit and passenger rail systems and to meet the growing and evolving mobility demands of our cities and communities.”

“Today, the Senate took action to advance the bi-partisan infrastructure proposal that includes the Surface Transportation Investment Act (STIA),” said American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association President and CEO Chuck Baker. “ASLRRA strongly supported the Act following its introduction on June 10, 2021. We congratulate the Senate for taking this momentous step forward in advancing such a sweeping infrastructure proposal – and we applaud the spirit of bipartisanship, hard work and compromise that allowed for this moment to happen. While more details are still to come and many will be debated in the days ahead, the deal holds great promise for the short line freight rail industry, the thousands of customers we serve in critical industries such as agriculture and manufacturing throughout the country, and for America’s economic future. The proposal will make key investments into programs that short line freight rail projects will be able to compete for, such as CRISI, RAISE, and INFRA, which can be transformational for short lines as they look to improve service, add capacity, enhance safety, upgrade tracks, and rehabilitate bridges to move America’s freight. We urge the Senate to move swiftly to finalize and pass an infrastructure bill. We look forward to remaining engaged as the measure advances through Congress, doing whatever we can to aid policymakers in ensuring that the final infrastructure legislation supports the continued growth and economic recovery of the hundreds of environmentally sustainable small business short line freight railroads and the thousands of communities and businesses that rely on our service.”

“On Life Support”?

Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner, experienced on how things get done on Capitol Hill, believes the deal is “on life support,” citing comments from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Wicker said of the motion to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to consider bipartisan infrastructure legislation: “I have long been a strong supporter of investing in our core infrastructure, but I am unable to support this agreement in its current form. Yet again, Senators are being asked to move forward on a bill that we have not had an opportunity to read.”

Wilner believes that many Republican politicians, especially those in leadership positions, will be focusing their efforts on the 2022 mid-term elections, and winning back the House and the Senate from the Democrats.

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