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Sorting through the bills moving through Congress

June 28, 2021

If you know that something big is happening in D.C. right now, but you’re not sure about what it all means, you’re not alone.

There’s a lot going on. Bills that could deliver big wins for trains are moving forward—and moving fast—on four separate tracks. And there are new developments at least once a week related to one or more of them.

Some big-picture context can be helpful in making sense of it all. So here’s an overview of what’s happening across the four tracks.

We’ll start with the fastest-moving bill (Track 1) and end with the mundane, but super important (Track 4).

Track 1: The infrastructure bill

President Biden and a group of senators has been negotiating a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill for several weeks. Last week, Biden announced that they had reached a deal on the framework and funding mechanisms.

This bipartisan group of Senators hopes to enact this bill following normal Senate procedures—called “regular order.” In a nutshell, that means they would have the 60 votes needed to override a potential Senate filibuster. (If there is no filibuster, they need a simple 51-vote majority.)

Things got complicated late last week when Biden linked the passage of this bill to another bill that’s moving ahead on Track 2, but seems back on track.

What it means for trains

This proposed bill would have $66 billion for the nation’s passenger-rail and freight-rail systems. Staff is working out the details and the distribution of the funds is uncertain. The overall amount is less than the $80 billion requested for rail in Biden’s American Jobs Plan. On the other hand, it would likely be the U.S. government’s largest investment in Amtrak since the system was created five decades ago.

Track 2: The reconciliation bill

President Biden and Democrats in Congress are separately working on a bill that includes hundreds of billions (or even trillions) of new spending on a range of Democratic priorities, especially subsidies for child care and “green economy” initiatives.

This bill has little to no support from Republicans in Congress. To pass it, Democrats must use a process called reconciliation.

In short, that means they could circumvent a filibuster by the GOP and pass with a simple 51-vote majority. The reconciliation route can be used only when a bill affects taxes, spending, or the debt limit, and only 22 bills have been enacted via reconciliation since it was first used in 1980. But it has become increasingly common in recent years as a way to break Senate gridlock.

What it means for trains

Details of this bill are also evolving and scarce. However, it offers a great opportunity to secure funding for high-speed rail projects—a glaring omission in the infrastructure bill’s proposed $66 billion for railroads.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA)—who has a plan and a bill to invest more than $200 billion in a national high-speed rail network—is taking the lead in pushing for more HSR funding in the reconciliation bill. Rep. Moulton is circulating a letter among House and Senate colleagues that demands funding for “next-generation transportation.” It calls for “high-speed rail corridor planning and development funding with high-performance rail connections.” It specifically asks for this funding to be included in the reconciliation bill, which “will demonstrate that the federal government is ready to commit as a partner in developing high-speed rail corridors across the United States.”

When President Biden tied passage of the infrastructure bill (Track 1) to the reconciliation bill (Track 2) last week, some Republicans who were part of the bipartisan infrastructure deal pushed back. They oppose both the details of the reconciliation bill and the use of that maneuver to pass it.

Over the weekend, Biden stepped back from his insistence on linking the two bills. That gesture seemed to preserve the bipartisan agreement. Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), however, continued to withhold his support for the bill, leaving its fate uncertain.

Track 3: The surface transportation authorization bill

Simultaneous with its work on the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, Congress is debating and writing a surface transportation authorization bill. The authorization bill currently in effect, called the Fast Act, passed in 2015. It was supposed to be effective until 2020. Congress extended it for a year due to the pandemic and other factors.

The authorization bill won’t allocate funds, which is a separate legislative process. Even so, it’s crucial because it sets Congress’s spending priorities and establishes the policies that will govern the nation’s transportation systems for the next five years.

By contrast, the infrastructure (Track 1) and reconciliation (Track 2) bills will actually allocate funds.

What it means for trains

In early June, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the INVEST In America Act, a $547 billion authorization bill, which is a 50 percent increase over the Fast Act. The bulk of the authorization ($343 billion) would be devoted to roads and bridges, but the bill proposes $109 billion for transit and $95 billion for passenger and freight-rail funding. Amtrak’s authorization would triple, to $32 billion, and it would be required to devote at least 2.5 percent of its annual government funding to improving “passenger experience” on long-distance routes.

Meantime, the Surface Transportation Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee, approved the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021, which included $78 billion (over 5 years) for the nation’s passenger-rail and freight-rail networks. Amtrak’s share would be $25 billion.

Although the Senate bills had strong bipartisan support, Republicans in Congress are sharply critical of the spending priorities set out in the House bill. Whether the House’s proposed funding levels for public transit and passenger railroads will remain in the final surface transportation bill remains to be seen. The final bill will be worked out by House and Senate negotiators and is due by Sept. 30.

Track 4: The FY2022 appropriations bill

An added challenge is that, simultaneous with all of this, Congress is working on the FY 2022 budget. As with the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, the funding implications for trains are uncertain and in flux. The federal budget is also due by Sept. 30.

Three things you can do—right now

Things are moving ahead rapidly on each of these tracks. The outcome remains an open question for all. Crucial votes are expected sometime in July and September. Congress will be in recess in August. Decisions made and laws enacted (or not) over the next few months will decisively shape the future of railroads for generations.

Please take a moment to do three things:

Ask your representatives to sign Rep. Moulton’s letter demanding more funding for high-speed rail in the reconciliation bill.

Tell your representatives that you support funding for trains in the bipartisan infrastructure bill moving forward in Congress.

Donate to HSRA! We’re currently reaching out to mayors across the country to enlist their support and amplify their voices. Please join us as we make a strong, unified push for transformative transportation policies—and funding—this summer. Incredible opportunities are right in front of us, waiting to be seized. But everything depends on your help.