2016 Budget: Congress' Parting Gift for Passengers is Part Naughty, Part Nice
December 17, 2015
Congress yesterday revealed a $1.1 trillion omnibus budget bill to keep the government funded in 2016, including $57.6 billion in transportation funding. The final document clocks in at just over 2,000 pages, which—given the wide-ranging focus of the budget bill—has industries and advocacy groups all across the country scrambling to see what the bill means for them.
NARP has reviewed the omnibus bill, and our initial takeaway is that the bill is decidedly a mixed bag for America’s rail passengers. Let’s dive into the specifics:
Contradicting the “no news is good news” truism, the omnibus bill flat-funds Amtrak at $1.39 billion ($288.5 million operating, $1.1 billion capital). After years of fighting cuts to Amtrak, you could be forgiven for seeing the glass as half full. Still, it’s hard not to be disappointed in the “same old” when the full Congress overwhelmingly passed the FAST Act, which provided intercity passenger rail with so much more in FY 2016: $1.45 billion for Amtrak, $98 million for rail infrastructure and improvements, $82 million for rail state of good repair, and $20 million for rail restoration grants.
The takeaway is that change requires advocacy. A $1.1 trillion omnibus bill negotiated behind closed doors by Congressional leadership, mere days after a transformational surface transportation bill, is not the most conducive environment for an effective grassroots campaign. However, passengers will get another shot at supporting the FAST Act’s funding structure in a few months, when Congress takes up the FY 2017 appropriations bill.
National Infrastructure Investments
In the good news column, the budget provides $500 million for National Infrastructure Investment grants (a new name for what is essentially the TIGER program). It's not quite the $600 million the Senate identified in its appropriations bill, but much more than the $100 million provided by the House.
This competitive grant program has been a crucial source of investment in both passenger and freight rail, with projects ranging from upgrades to track infrastructure on the Southwest Chief’s multi-state route to local transit rail systems. Robust funding is good news for passenger advocates across the U.S.
Transit Commuter Benefits
As part of the companion tax-extenders bill, Congress has (finally) done the right thing by passengers and created permanent parity in the commuter tax benefits enjoyed by drive-and-park commuters and transit commuters. The extenders bill increases the mass transit commuter tax benefit from the current $130 per month to $250 per month, bringing it in line with the parking commuter benefit. The benefit will rise to $255 next year as part of a cost of living adjustment.
This isn’t the most glamorous provision, but it puts real money back in the pockets of working Americans. Only by addressing the many little incentives to drive that governments have created over the years—and which, viewed in total, add up to a lot—can we ensure that people have meaningful choice in how they travel.
Railroad Safety Grants
The omnibus bill provides $50 million in rail safety grants—$25 million for railroad safety infrastructure improvements, and $25 million in railroad safety technology grants. This isn’t the $180 million in FY 2016 rail infrastructure grants identified in the FAST Act, but it is real money that will help railroads fund installation of the life-saving Positive Train Control technology.
New Starts Transit Investment
The budget provides $2.18 billion for the New Starts grant program, which has been an important force in incubating new light rail and commuter rail systems around the U.S. The list of projects currently receiving New Starts funding is a veritable who’s who of American transit rail.
The funding figure also comes as a nice surprise—not only is more than New Starts received last year, it’s also higher than the levels identified in either the House or Senate appropriations bills.
Railway-Highways Crossing Program
The omnibus provided $350 million for railway-highway grade separation in FY 2016. Part of the Section 130 program, this is another one of those unsexy programs that has an outsized impact. While derailments tend to receive more media attention for the startling images they provide, collisions at public railroad crossings accounts for the highest numbers of injuries and fatalities in the operations of passenger and freight railroads. By reducing the possibility of collisions through improved crossing guard devices— or eliminating it entirely through grade-separation—the Section 130 makes rail operations safer for passenger, pedestrians, drivers, and rail-adjacent communities.
There was no funding included for high-speed rail in the omnibus. And in what is becoming an annual ritual, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation went out of its way to highlight that no funds were being provided for high-speed rail. Salt, meet wound.