MIPRC asks Midwestern members of Congress to support the ‘Moving America Forward’ Act’s rail title
MIPRC asked Midwestern members of Congress to support the provisions and authorizations for passenger rail development contained in the TRAIN Act (Division D–Rail) of the House of Representatives’ proposed new five-year surface transportation authorization bill, H.R. 2, the “Moving Forward Act,” and to support a few important additions. (The bill was approved in the House on July 1 by a 233-188 vote).
In a letter sent by email on June 29, the Commission noted that the TRAIN, or “Transforming Rail by Accelerating Investment Nationwide” Act (Division D–Rail of the bill), includes most of provisions sought in its surface transportation reauthorization principles.
“The TRAIN Act makes important improvements to the mission and goals of Amtrak, focusing on intercity passenger rail’s public benefits and requiring that ‘Amtrak provide modern, cost-efficient, and energy‐efficient intercity rail passenger transportation throughout the United States’ ” – in addition to changes “that both stress the importance of intercity passenger rail within the nation’s transportation system and make clear the importance of long‐distance passenger rail service within that system,” the letter said.
In the letter, MIPRC indicated its agreement with
• giving Amtrak the right of private action (Section 9204 of Title II), “an important tool for Amtrak to address poor on‐time performance caused by host railroads that ignore the law by refusing to give passenger rail service the priority to which it is statutorily entitled.”
• Reauthorization of and funding for the State‐Amtrak Intercity Passenger Rail Committee.
• Renewal of two important discretionary grants included in the FAST Act – Consolidated Rail Infrastructure & Safety Improvements (CRISI) and Restoration & Enhancement (R&E) – and the proposed increase in CRISI funding to $1.4 billion per year.
(Midwestern states have applied for and received awards in almost every cycle of these three grants during the life of the FAST Act. See our comprehensive list here.)
The Commission also strongly supports a new grant created under the TRAIN Act – the Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization & Enhancement (PRIME) program – which would provide $3.8 billion annually to fund “capital projects that improve the state of good repair, operational performance, or growth of intercity rail passenger transportation.”
MIPRC also signaled approval for a provision in the PRIME program that would allow the transportation secretary to use up to half a percent of the of that $3.8 billion “to facilitate and provide guidance for regional planning processes.” That funding could help the Midwest and other regions continue the FRA-led planning process such as the one MIPRC and the Midwestern states are undertaking.
These grant programs would help Midwestern states address almost 30 intercity passenger rail projects totaling more than $2 billion that are ready for funding now – which would stimulate the COVID‐19 recovery economy by creating jobs, improving freight rail lines upon which most of intercity passenger rail travels, increasing frequencies to meet long‐determined needs for additional service, purchasing trainsets and initiating new service. (See a list of Midwestern states’ planned projects here.)
MIPRC also asked Midwestern members to support additions to HR 2 that MIPRC believes would strengthen the passenger rail-related portions of the rail title:
Stronger Long‐Distance Service Mandates
The TRAIN Act stresses the importance of long‐distance service (a.k.a. the National Network) and redefines Amtrak’s mission from minimizing federal subsidies to using “its best business judgment in acting to maximize the benefits of public funding.”
MIPRC asks that this reauthorization make clear that new and expanded passenger rail service should continue providing rural communities the vital access to transportation provided by current long‐distance trains; and requests that Congress study the future of the National Network (with MIPRC as a stakeholder) and mandate preservation of the current National Network while it is being studied.
Additional funding for Amtrak to avoid cutting long-distance service
The COVID‐19 pandemic has severely affected ridership on all modes of transportation. Amtrak has announced plans to cut long‐distance service starting on Oct. 1 from daily to just three days per week until travel market conditions indicate more demand. Amtrak has informed MIPRC that it would need to receive $4 billion in federal funding for the National Network for FY 2021 in order avoid those planned cuts.
MIPRC asks that the National Network be authorized and funded at $4 billion for the first fiscal year of the TRAIN Act (FY 2021).
Among the last-minute amendments to the bill was one from Ohio Rep Marcy Kaptur finding that Amtrak must provide more justification for its planned cuts and expressing a “Sense of Congress” that “Congress is concerned by the recent announcements from Amtrak that it intends to reduce its workforce and its daily long-distance train service and calls on Amtrak to provide assurance about the future of the passenger rail network and its employees.”
Clarify that States that Don’t Operate IPR are not Railroads
Since 2015, MIPRC has sought a federal clarification that states, and political subdivisions of states, which sponsor, but do not operate intercity passenger rail services, are not railroads nor are they railroad carriers. In MIPRC’s letter to Congress, we point out that while the FRA has recently issued a final rule that somewhat clarifies that issue, the rule is not law and is something that the FRA could seek to change at any time.
MIPRC asks that in the reauthorization bill Congress provide a simple clarification of current federal law 49 USC 20102(3), which states in part that a “ ‘railroad carrier’ means a person providing railroad transportation….”
MIPRC asks for clarifying language such as: “A State, or a political subdivision of a State, that provides equipment, track, right‐of‐way, or financial support for intercity passenger service pursuant to section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (division B of Public Law 110–432; 49 U.S.C. 24101), if such State or political subdivision does not directly operate such service, is excluded from the definition of ‘railroad’.”
Increase Funding for Restoration & Enhancement Grants
Restoration & Enhancement (R&E) grants can become an increasingly important tool for MIPRC states as they establish new service and increase frequencies. In May, Wisconsin and Minnesota won a $12.6 million R&E grant – in just the second set of R&E grant awards during the five years of the FAST Act – for operating assistance funding to add a second passenger rail roundtrip train between the Twin Cities and Chicago (the so-called “Second Empire Builder”).
Midwestern states are planning a significant amount of new service within the next five years and reauthorizing the grant at just $20 million per year will stunt this market‐driven growth.