By Justin Franz
A week after Amtrak officials said the railroad needed $1.4 billion to survive the ongoing pandemic, House Democrats revealed a plan that would triple federal funding for intercity passenger rail service. The funding proposal is part of a new surface transportation funding bill that would invest more than $500 billion in highway and rail projects over the next five years. The current surface transportation act, dubbed the FAST Act, was signed into law in 2015 by President Barack Obama and expires this year.
While passenger rail and transit advocates were heralding the proposed bill as a major win, freight railroads were less enthusiastic because it also takes aim at some of the most controversial issues in contemporary railroading: crew size and Precision Scheduled Railroading.
On Wednesday, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), released the text of the “Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America,” also knowns as the INVEST in America Act. If passed, the federal government would invest $105 billion into transit systems and $60 billion into rail projects, including $29 billion for Amtrak over the next five years. The bill would also increase grant funding available to freight and passenger rail projects and invest $2.5 billion into grade separation projects to improve rail crossing safety.
Both the Rail Passenger Association (formally National Association of Railroad Passengers) and the American Public Transportation Association praised the bill as a bold vision for the future. “This forward-thinking legislation will transform our nation’s infrastructure and put us on the path to build more equitable communities for all Americans, creating and connecting people to jobs, providing better mobility options for millions, and addressing the environmental and sustainability challenges facing our nation and the world,” said APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas.
The bill also would also put restrictions on freight trains longer than 7,500-feet — a key tenet of the Precision Scheduled Railroading system that many Class 1s have implemented in recent years — and a requirement that two crew members be aboard all freight trains. Both previsions are sure to win fans among railroad union members and ire from the executive suits. That displeasure was reflected in the Association of American Railroad’s reaction late Wednesday.
“America’s railroads are extremely disappointed in the House surface transportation reauthorization released today. When all of us should be working together toward common-sense solutions, this partisan legislation falls far short of what this moment demands,” said President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “Smart policies have helped railroads continue to deliver for their customers during this pandemic. Now is not the time to retreat from these much less impose wish list policy riders or unnecessary operational requirements, such as mandating crew size, barring the streamlining of operations and constraining the already limited capacity of the rail network.”