WASHINGTON -- The Amtrak riders who live in the infamous Acela corridor lost out in the bipartisan budget deal reached between House and Senate appropriators this past week.
Not only does the deal not authorize a single cent more for high-speed rail construction and services, it actually rescinds money from one account, the Next-Generation High-Speed Rail program. It also rescinds $4,419,000 from the Northeast Corridor Improvement program, which aims to improve existing Amtrak lines in the region.
In all, the bill authorizes $1.39 billion for Amtrak capital and operating expenses. That's about $45 million more than where things stood after sequestration took effect. But it's $28 million less than pre-sequestration funding levels, leaving rail advocates shaking their heads and congressional backers questioning their fellow lawmakers' priorities.
"The other party has been going after Amtrak for 20 years now," said an agitated Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, as he strolled through the halls of the Senate on Tuesday. Asked if he was disappointed, he responded, "Of course I am."
The omnibus appropriations bill, which the House passed on Wednesday and the Senate is expected to pass on Thursday, was assembled with a deft political touch. Each side received a few headline-grabbing funding wins to take back and sell to their base. One such victory for conservatives was the cut to Amtrak and high-speed rail.
In the press release he sent out touting the contents of the spending bill, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) put at the top of his "Savings and Oversight of Tax Dollars" section, "No funding for High Speed Rail." On the Hill, meanwhile, Republicans hailed the cutback as a common-sense move with broad support.
"I think they were looking at this, and trying to figure out how to make it fit within the number that was provided by the budget," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation. "I suspect it was kind of a consensus view. And my assumption is since the Democrats were involved in writing that bill, that it wasn’t just a Republican priority to do that."
Certainly, the bipartisan group that put the bill together believed that Amtrak had funds to spare, or at least that it wasn't the most pressing priority. But the bill does set aside more than $35.2 million for railroad research and development and $10 million for security purposes. Amtrak will also receive $50 million from a separate agency to make sure its facilities and stations are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those funds helped dull the pain a bit for some northeastern lawmakers.
"I’m going to continue fighting for that funding, which is absolutely essential to northeast transportation," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the transportation committee. "There is some increase in money for inspections and rail safety, which is a priority and could be increasingly a priority. But we are not done."
But the omnibus bill was still hard to swallow for most rail advocates, and specifically for champions of high-speed rail. The Obama administration devoted $8 billion to the initiative in the 2009 stimulus package, but the Department of Transportation confirmed to The Huffington Post that the full amount has been obligated. So has the $2.5 billion allocated to high-speed rail and intercity passenger rail projects in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2010.
And so, there is no clear path ahead for the White House's vision of a comprehensive, interconnected, high-speed rail system in the U.S.
The budget deal "is not a document to love, but it is progress, if only because both sides came together to produce an agreement," said Marcia Hale, President of Building America’s Future, a nonpartisan group promoting major infrastructure investment.
"It is perplexing that there is such opposition to high-speed rail," she added. "Most other industrialized countries are well ahead of us in this area –- and reaping benefits from it. I continue to believe if we could get one truly high-speed rail line operating in this country, it would become immensely popular. And folks would wonder why we hadn’t built it sooner."
Eugene Mulero contributed reporting.