Door reopened slightly on high-speed rail funding

September 22, 2011

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Amtrak LogoWASHINGTON – Just when federal funding for high-speed rail appeared dead as a rusted rail spike, Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois exercised his clout and reopened the door – if only slightly.

On Sept. 20, the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee voted to zero-out all federal funds for high-speed rail. Coming on the heels of a similar House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee vote, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) – one of the most ardent congressional supporters of high-speed rail – declared that  elimination of high-speed rail funding is “a casualty of the cuts mandated in the debt-limit deal.”

But when the entire Senate Appropriations Committee met Sept. 21, Durbin was successful in having the entire committee overrule the transportation subcommittee and, instead, approve $100 million for high-speed funding for fiscal year 2012.

True, the $100 million, while seeming a large sum, is relatively small given the hundreds of billions of dollars required to build a series of high-speed rail lines in America. Consider that President Obama, earlier in the year, had urged $8 billion for high-speed rail in FY 2012, on top of $10.1 billion previously approved by Congress – with $7 billion of that $10.1 billion already allocated to numerous high-speed rail proposals nationwide.

With the door for high-speed rail funding reopened, the battle now turns to the House and Senate floors, where more money might be appropriated when the final votes are cast for FY 2012 high-speed rail funding.

Amtrak funding also faces a tough battle in the House and Senate.

In the Senate, appropriators are recommending $544 million in Amtrak operating subsidies for FY 2012 ($18 million less than FY 2011 funding) plus $937 million toward capital spending and debt service (an increase of $15 million from the FY 2011 appropriation).

But In the House, appropriators are recommending considerably less for Amtrak in FY 2012 — $227 million for operating subsidies and $899 for capital and debt service.

Also awaiting further House action is a House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee recommendation to eliminate all federal funding for state-supported Amtrak service in FY 2012. No action on that anti-Amtrak initiative has surfaced in the Senate.

It is unlikely that the House and Senate will reach agreement on FY 2012 Amtrak funding prior to the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1. More likely is a continuing resolution that will extend FY 2011 funding levels into FY 2012 while lawmakers continue debating FY 2012 funding levels.