June 17, 2017 - TRA Newswire / NARPrail.com -

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development this week grilled U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao over plans to slash infrastructure funding, eliminate Amtrak's long-distance trains, and stall transit projects slated for construction.

Appropriators made it clear they understand the need for robust investment in passenger rail and transit. They were extremely skeptical of the White House’s proposed cuts to the transportation budget—particularly for rural communities.

Even so, Chao held firm in the White House's intention to target those very same rural communities by slashing Amtrak funding.

"Funding for Amtrak’s long distance routes is another area where Federal investments do not match the level of usage. Amtrak’s long distance services are used by a relatively small number of passengers," said the Secretary. "These trains are very expensive to operate and maintain; and account for much of Amtrak’s operating losses. The President’s budget recognizes this is an area with a low return on investment and instead asks us to concentrate our resources on other portions of Amtrak’s system."

According to a National Association of Railroad Passengers news release, Chao's statement is flat out wrong and Amtrak President & CEO, Wick Moorman has said the cuts would lead to a net loss for the company. "Amtrak's initial projection is that eliminating long distance services would result in an additional cost of approximately $423 million in FY2018 alone, requiring more funding from Congress and our partners rather than less," said Moorman.

When repeatedly pressed on details of President Trump’s oft-touted infrastructure bill, Sec. Chao promised answers soon—a strong indication that a concrete proposal will not be released this summer.

According to information from NARP – Amtrak projects eliminating long distance services would cost an extra $423 million this year alone, requiring more funding from Congress for less service.

–If the White House budget becomes law, more than 220 communities across 23 across America will lose service.

–If the White House budget becomes law, over 140 million Americans will lose access to the national network.

–If the White House budget becomes law, 45% of taxpayers would lose access to Amtrak’s national network. Every American deserves a choice

–Since 2008, Congress has subsidized the Highway Trust Fund with $141 billion in general revenues--three times what Amtrak received over its entire 40 year history. Amtrak’s long distance trains, the only service 23 states, are a bargain.

NARP was on hand to bring you all the relevant exchanges from the hearing:

Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), noting the DOT budget would be $16.3 billion, worries about the lack of funding for passenger rail and the Capital Investment Grant program, in particular.
Representative David Price (D-NC) argued that the P3 program would not be viable unless the federal government increased its investment from the proposed $200 billion. He said state and local funds would not suffice to fill the gap. He noted that the infrastructure plan presented to the House was too vague. Price was unhappy with the proposed $3.1-billion cut on discretionary spending, as well the 50% cut to Amtrak and the 28% cut to the Northeast Corridor. Rep. Price said that these cuts would reduce safety and damage the economy given the NEC's importance. Furthermore, he criticized the roughly $500 million cut to TIGER, noting it was overwhelmingly approved in the most-recent omnibus spending measure.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) focused on two projects in the NEC: the Gateway and the Hudson Tunnel. He said the Tunnel required federal funding to fix and any delay would gravely damage GNP and the economies of both NJ and NY. He also doubts that $200 billion would be able to leverage $800 billion from private, state, and local sources. Chao did not provide an in-depth answer. Regarding the specific projects brought up, she reverted to talking points about permit reform.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) strongly believed that proposed federal funding was insufficient and that localities and states could in no way afford to undergo projects without federal funding.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) said that $85 billion was needed for urban transit to bring it into a state of good repair. He emphasized the need for maintenance on metro systems and asserted that younger generations find transit more appealing than cars. Furthermore, he said that urban transit systems--such as in Chicago--are not suited to P3. He also pressed Secretary Chao on Positive Train Control and modernization. She responded to say streamlining regulation would make upgrading systems faster, but also that funding would be directed mainly towards the "most efficient systems." Quigley said that Chicago could not afford to repair-and-upgrade without federal funding and the current cuts were damaging. Chao said funds would be placed in a "new investment system."
Rep. Hal Rodgers (R-KY) was unhappy about the focus on "the most transformative" projects, leaving him to believe rural America would be overlooked. Rodgers further questioned the possibility of selling public assets to the private sector. Secretary Chao said the focus of funding was still being debated, and that some states may have to loosen their restrictions and would not be permitted to sell assets to foreign entities.
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said that Positive Train Control required federal funds to be provided.
Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) asked if the administration would honor the $647 million pledged to the Caltrain and their peninsula electrification project, which would have a difficult time getting private investment. Chao said $170 million would be given due to commitments made by the omnibus. Rep. Valadao requested funding be frozen until the project underwent an audit. Chao did not give a direct answer, but seemed to agree with the proposal. She further said that the question of appropriated funds for this project is a Congressional issue not one for the DOT.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) said that "seed capital" already existed for HSR and Caltrain, emphasizing that they were separate entities; and that the TIGER Program was necessary for these projects to continue. He asked how those funds would be replaced. Secretary Chao responded by saying that TIGER was a popular program, but its funds were "earmarked" and should be replaced with more block-style grants to the states to spend as needed. She said the administration "philosophically" disagreed with TIGER's implementation.