Congress Passes Short-Term Budget & Amtrak Border Bill Before Adjourning for the 2016

Most Members of Congress have left Washington, D.C. for the holiday break, and—save for select pro forma sessions—Congress is nominally adjourned for the year.

With the budget extended through late April, NARP has a much clearer idea about what legislative goals for the first half of 2017. Stay tuned in the new year to hear more about opportunities to advocate for more and better train service.

Congress Extends Budget Through April 2017

The United States Senate passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) appropriations bill funding through April 28, 2017, by a vote of 63-36. This followed on a bill cleared by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 326-96. President Obama signed the bill into law, averting a government shutdown. As we predicted, Congress extended program funding levels at FY2016 levels. However, due to the budget anomaly secured by NARP advocates in September, Amtrak will be funded at the slightly higher FY2017 levels.

Unfortunately, given the short duration of the bill, the U.S. DOT will likely make partial-year apportionments to grantees, negatively affecting rail-friendly programs like New Starts and TIGER. Additionally, the increases authorized by the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act for FY 2017 remain unfunded, including rail service restoration grants and expansion and upgrade grants.

The timing sets NARP up for an eventful spring meeting, where we will be well-positioned to push for a full-year budget at authorized FAST Act funding levels.

'Preclearance' Bill To Ease U.S.-Canada Rail Travel Clears Congress

The Promoting Travel, Commerce and National Security Act of 2016, a bill that will facilitate travel across the Canadian border, was passed by Congress this weekend. This legislation will improve performance of Amtrak’s Adirondack, and is an important step in extending the Vermonter to Montreal. The bill could also have positive ramifications for additional frequencies on the Cascades service, which terminates in Vancouver, B.C. However, passengers on the Maple Leaf will still have to detrain at Niagara Falls.

The bill was supported by a bipartisan, bicameral coalition, including Senators Pat Leahy (I-VT) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21) and Ann Kuster (D-NH-2).

“This agreement has long been a priority for Vermonters,” said Senator Leahy. “It would make it possible to restore Amtrak service between Vermont and Quebec in the future. It’s a win for Vermont’s economy, and for Canadians who visit Vermont to sightsee, ski, shop and dine. This process has been a true bipartisan effort, at every level of government in both the United States and Canada have been fully supportive and engaged. Now, at last, we can confidently move to the next stages of getting passenger service to Montreal up and running. Many of us can’t wait to hear those first whistles blow.”

The Canadian government will need to pass matching legislation before the agreement can go into effect. Canada’s Liberal party has introduced a companion bill, C-23, and it enjoys broad support in the House of Commons. This will allow both governments to ratify the underlying treaty.

Infrastructure Bill Thrown in Doubt

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) signaled again this week that establishment Republicans may oppose President-Elect Donald Trump’s proposal for a massive infrastructure bill.

“It will be interesting to see how this is put together,” McConnell told reporters. “I hope we avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus.”

Additionally, the Senate GOP leader joined his counterpart in the U.S. House, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), in voicing opposition to using tax reform to pay for additional spending on transportation infrastructure.

“I think this level of national debt is dangerous and unacceptable,” McConnell added. “My preference on tax reform is that it be revenue neutral.”

President-Elect Trump has explicitly called for a trillion dollar infrastructure push, so transportation advocates will have to wait and see who’s vision for the first 100 days of the 115th Congress comes out on top.