Two steps forward, one step back in Washington

July 20, 2017

When President Trump released his proposed 2018 budget earlier this year, it cut all funding for long-distance Amtrak trains. It also proposed killing programs like Core Capacity, New Starts and CRISI (Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Grants), which maintain and improve our passenger rail infrastucture.

Even though we were fairly sure the administration's proposal was dead on arrival, it was a relief to see Congress rebuke these ideas this week in its first steps to a 2018 budget. The Republican-led House appropriations committee approved a transportation budget that actually increases funding for passenger rail by a slim margin: $360 million more than current levels. The committee is led by a representative from New Jersey, so it's no surprise that $900 million is dedicated to the Gateway program, which will build replacements for the crumbling, 100-year-old tunnels under the Hudson river.

If only the Midwest had similar rail megaprojects planned that our elected officals could be fighting for. We have many smaller projects in the pipeline, but none that can capture Congress' attention like the Gateway connection between New Jersey and New York. That's why the Midwest High Speed Rail Association is beginning a study to identify the big projects we need to have fast, frequent and reliable trains connecting our region. Our fragmented planning structure makes big thinking difficult, so we are jumping in to fill the gap.

The House Republicans' budget isn't all good news: the popular TIGER grant program is eliminated. Since it was created in 2009, the federal TIGER program dedicated 20% of its money to railroad projects, which amounts to more than one billion dollars around the country. TIGER has contributed more than $100 million to CREATE projects that have improved passenger and freight flow in Chicago. Around Illinois, TIGER has helped build grade separations in Springfield and new stations in Bloomington-Normal and Alton. It contributed $10 million to the 110mph upgrades on the Amtrak line from Kalamazoo to Dearborn, Michigan, and has contributed to the new steetcar systems in Detroit and Milwaukee.

One theory is that Republicans are killing TIGER simply because it is a legacy of the Obama administration. They could replace it with a similar program, but we wouldn't be surprised if the replacement excludes rail and transit. In any case, the process isn't over yet. We have yet to see what the Senate will propose in response to the House's budget. Stay tuned: the current 2017 budget expires September 31. And what about Trump's famous billion-dollar infrastructure package? That seems to be tied to a GOP tax reform plan at this point.

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