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Infrastructure Bill Update - Senate Moves to Vote

August 04, 2021
Quick version

 Advocates for passenger rail have a lot to cheer for right now—but much work remains to be done.

  • The Senate will vote late this week on a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget resolution that advances a separate “reconciliation” bill.
  • The bills include massive new funding for trains.  High-speed trains are an eligible use. 
  • Final votes on the bills are expected when Congress returns from recess in September. 
  • Your actions can still make a big difference to the passage of the bills—and to the details of the reconciliation bill. Take a moment and contact your representatives. 
  • Keep in mind that calls have an especially big impact. Personal conversations (at town-hall meetings, for example) are even better. 
  • HSRA is following these developments with a “four-track” model. Here’s an update on Tracks 1, 2, and 3, where most of the action is right now. 
Track 1: Infrastructure bill

The bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill—which includes $66 billion in investments in passenger trains over five years—is approaching a final vote in the Senate. 

The bill is slowly working its way through the amendment process this week. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) intends to hold a final Senate vote before the chamber’s August recess, which begins Monday.

Highlights of the infrastructure bill’s $66 billion in passenger rail funding include $6 billion for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) grants; $24 billion for Amtrak/state partnerships; $16 billion for Amtrak’s national network; and $12 billion for other passenger train corridors, including high-speed trains. Amtrak’s annual funding, pre-pandemic, was roughly $2 billion. 

Find the complete breakdown of the bill’s proposed funding for passenger rail here

The group of 10 Democrats and Republicans who took the lead in negotiating the bill are promising to block any “poison pill” amendments from derailing it. One remaining challenge, however, is the House’s vote. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) vows to delay action on the infrastructure bill until a related budget reconciliation bill (see below) passes the Senate. Republicans are united in their opposition to that bill, which makes its fate uncertain. 

One analysis of the bill found that $105 billion of the proposed $274 billion for transportation projects consists of competitive grants. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has the final authority over how they are distributed—and Buttigieg has long been a strong champion of trains. In February, he said that the U.S. must take its transportation systems “to the next level” and that the U.S. should be a global leader in high-speed rail. 

The infrastructure bill includes $39 billion in investments for public transit systems (buses, subways, and commuter trains). That’s $10 billion less than proposed funding levels in the House’s version of the bill. 

Although the Biden administration touts the infrastructure package as the largest investment ever in public transit in U.S. history (and the largest investment ever in Amtrak as well), the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the maintenance backlog for transit systems in the U.S. is $176 billion. 

Track 2: Budget Reconciliation bill

Legislators are also currently working on details of a $3.5 trillion “budget reconciliation” package that can pass the Senate with a bare, 50-vote majority. (Most bills in the chamber are now filibustered by one of the parties and require a 60-vote majority to pass.) 

For Democrats, the reconciliation bill is a way to achieve goals that they believe the infrastructure bill fails to address adequately. Passenger trains in general—and high-speed rail in particular—are high priorities for them. 

A House bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), for example, proposes to invest $205 billion in high-speed rail over 5 years. Moulton is part of a coalition of 80 lawmakers who called for high-speed rail to be among the “transformational investments” that Congress is currently debating.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Coalition (which HSRA belongs to) has given Congressional leaders and the Biden administration a set of proposed projects and funding priorities that will “launch America’s high-speed rail revolution.” The recommendations include a High Speed Rail Development Agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation, along with $205 billion in grant funding for HSR (over 10 years) in the budget reconciliation bill. 

The funding would support projects now underway (such as California’s San Francisco to L.A. system) and create a pipeline of projects that are now in the planning/ visioning stages (such as a Boston-New York line and an Indianapolis-Louisiville-Nashville-Memphis line). It would also fund upgrades to existing passenger-rail service and railroad infrastructure. 

The Coalition notes that “delivering on President Biden’s commitment” to HSR will require robust investments well above the $12 billion contained in the infrastructure package. The reconciliation bill could be the tool for making that happen. 

However, the Senate must first pass a budget resolution that allows the bill to proceed. Sen. Schumer has signaled intention to hold that vote this week. The Senate will then be in recess until mid-September, which is the earliest that final votes on the infrastructure and reconciliation bills could take place.

As noted above, however, the House’s willingness to move the legislation forward is uncertain. Speaker Pelosi has said that the House will only consider the infrastructure and reconciliation bills together. Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has echoed Pelosi’s threat. 

DeFazio is unhappy with details of the infrastructure bill (see below) and is looking to the reconciliation bill as a partial solution. “Hopefully we will fix some of the issues that have been created by this so-called bipartisan bill,” he said

With relatively little support from Republicans, near-complete Democratic unity will likely be required for Congress to pass the bills. And while some Democrats in the House are unhappy with the infrastructure bill, some Democrats in the Senate have reservations about the reconciliation bill. 

In particular, Kyrsten Synema (D-AZ) has said that she supports the budget resolution allowing the bill to move forward, but “I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion.” Synema has promised to “work in good faith to develop this legislation.” But her intentions and preferences remain unclear. 

Your actions—right now—can make a difference to the final details of the bill. Call and email your representatives right now. Tell them it’s time for transformative levels of investment for trains and transit in the U.S.—far beyond what’s provided for in the infrastructure bill. 

Track 3: Surface Transportation Authorization bill

The authorization bill that is currently in effect (the Fast Act) passed in 2015 and was set to expire 2020, but Congress extended it for a year due to the pandemic. The authorization bill sets spending priorities and establishes the policies that govern the nation’s transportation systems.

In July, the House passed an authorization bill called the INVEST In America Act. It proposed $109 billion for transit and $95 billion in passenger and freight-rail funding. It also included key changes to policy that would promote railroad development—for example, by creating state-level barriers for spending federal dollars on new roads.

Unfortunately, that bill’s substance is gutted in the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill—which includes a new surface transportation authorization but does not include the spending levels and key rail-related policy changes of the House bill. 

The snub could emerge as a key point of tension this fall, when the House takes up the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. 

It could delay a vote on the infrastructure bill, for example, since Rep. DeFazio has called for a conference committee to work out differences between the Senate’s version and the House’s version. Or it could complicate negotiations over details of the reconciliation bill, if DeFazio and other Democrats push for elements of the INVEST in America Act to be included in that bill.

Track 4: The FY 2022 budget appropriations bill

Simultaneous with all of this, Congress is working on the FY 2022 federal budget. As with the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, the implications for trains are in flux. The budget is due by Sept. 30.

The House Appropriations Committee released summaries of several appropriations bills that will be considered soon, including the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) bill.The THUD bill proposes significant increases to rail-related funding on several fronts. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration would receive $4.1 billion (an increase of $1.3 billion over FY 2021); Amtrak would receive $2.7 billion (an increase of $700 million); and the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program would receive $500 million (an increase of $125 million).

The budget also appropriates $625 million for the new Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion grant program, which supports “projects that improve, expand, or establish passenger rail service.”

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