Congress passed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill on Thursday, March 22. The president signed the legislation (even though his Twitter activity suggested otherwise) to avoid a government shutdown, but noted his displeasure saying there were elements of the legislation he was not happy about.
There is much to be happy about for those in the rail industry with popular grant programs seeing an increase in funding, steps taken to open underutilized loan programs and a big bump to intercity and Amtrak allocations.
The spending bill will fund the federal government through the fiscal year 2018 (September) including the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and its programs.
Upon the bill’s approval in the House, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said the legislation “makes significant strides on addressing urgent domestic priorities that will improve quality of life for all Americans and support economic growth and job creation” including more than $21 billion in infrastructure projects.
USDOT will have $27.3 billion in discretionary appropriations for FY18, but the House Appropriations Committee says that in total budgetary resources, including offsetting collections, the bill provides $86.2 billion to improve and maintain transportation infrastructure.
The popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program will get a $1 billion boost over FY17 levels with $1.5 billion available. Language in the bill ensures that at least 30 percent of these grants will go to rural communities.
Federal investments in rail infrastructure and safety programs are funded at $3.1 billion. Amtrak is provided with $1.9 billion, which includes $650 million for Northeast Corridor (NEC) grants and $1.3 billion to support the national intercity network. Also included is funding for the Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair grants at $250 million to address critical rail investments nationwide and on the NEC. Rail safety and research programs are funded at $287 million to fund inspectors and training, plus maintenance and safety investments to the physical rail infrastructure.
Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants are funded at $593 million to fund capital and safety improvements, planning, environmental work and research. There is also $250 million included for grants available to rail operators in install Positive Train Control.
The Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan program receives a $25 million allocation for the first time and $350,000 has been allotted to help shortline and regional railroads apply and take advantage of the program.
Regarding transit, the Federal Transit Administration is provided with $13.5 billion in total budgetary resources, which include $9.7 billion “to help local communities build, maintain, and ensure the safety of their mass transit systems.” Within the $9.7 billion is $2.6 billion for Capital Investment Grants transit projects. “New Starts” projects are funded at $1.5 billion, Core Capacity projects at $716 million and Small Starts projects at $400 million.
The Gateway Program, specifically if or what funds could be included in the mega spending bill, was a negotiating point among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Of Amtrak’s $1.9 billion, there is an extra $350 million for NEC capital improvements, which will allow the passenger railroad to begin the project.
There are additional funding options on the table for the program; however, they come with many strings attached.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to the staff of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association for much needed help deciphering more than 2,200 pages of text. For more analysis of what the spending bill could mean for the Gateway Program, we recommend this article.