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Advocates look to turn around recent trends in rail funding

by Laura Kliewer ~ May 2012 ~ Stateline Midwest »
After two years of minimal investments in passenger rail, advocates of improving the region’s intercity and interstate rail system are hoping to convince the U.S. Congress to reverse this recent course in federal funding.
 
The Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission sent a letter in April to select federal lawmakers seeking the following appropriations in the 2013 budget:
• $1 billion for the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program, which provides funding for shorter-distance, state-supported rail corridors;
• $500 million for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program (TIGER); and
• $2.2 billion in support for Amtrak.
Those first two programs initially received funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which marked an unprecedented federal commitment to passenger rail. The act allocated $8 billion for HSIPR, on top of the $2.5 billion the program received in the fiscal 2010 budget.
But since then, funding has run dry: Congress provided no new dollars in fiscal years 2011 and 2012.
As of May 2011, seven Midwestern states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — had been awarded roughly $2.6 billion for 35 projects. Most of that funding is being used to improve or develop four key interstate rail corridors: Chicago to St. Louis to Kansas City; Minneapolis/St. Paul to Chicago; Chicago to Omaha; and Detroit/Pontiac to Chicago.
High-speed service has already begun on portions of the Detroit-to-Chicago route and is expected soon on parts of the Chicago-to-St. Louis line. States are also using HSIPR funds to buy new equipment and conduct studies of possible new routes, such as Kansas City-to-Oklahoma City and Minneapolis/St. Paul-to-Duluth.
President Barack Obama’s budget request for fiscal 2013 includes $2.5 billion for HSIPR. However, congressional opposition that led to a zeroing out of funding will likely again affect upcoming budget negotiations.
The president has also requested $500 million for TIGER, a competitive grant program that funds various modes of transportation, including passenger rail. In the Midwest, passenger rail and transit stations have received TIGER grants. During the first three years of TIGER funding, $2.6 billion has been awarded for 172 projects.
Amtrak’s $2.2 billion request for FY 2013 includes operating, capital and debt-service expenses; Obama has proposed $1.5 billion.
Amtrak is seeing record ridership, and ticket sales and other revenues account for 85 percent of operating costs. However, it still relies on federal funding for some needs, such as replacing an aging fleet of rail cars that are an average of 27 years old.

 

Brief written by Laura Kliewer, director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, which was formed by an interstate compact agreement in 2000 and now includes 11 member states. Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz serves as the commission's chair.