Eleven Things to Look for in the Passenger Rail Reauthorization

Will a new rail authorization find a way to help states make needed repairs to keep the whole Northeast Corridor running smoothly? Photo: NJ Transit via Second Avenue Sagas

Now that the surface transportation bill fight is over — at least for the moment — transportation reformers are eying the expiration date of another key piece of legislation later this year. The reauthorization of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) could be a chance to make some needed changes to jump-start progress in the passenger rail system. Or it could be the next partisan battleground, making it a process as unnavigable as the lead-up to the passage of MAP-21.

PRIIA shouldn’t be as contentious as the surface transportation bill for three reasons. First of all, no one’s expecting a seismic shift in rail policy to come with this bill. Second, reauthorizing the passenger rail title doesn’t necessarily require a big conversation about funding (though there are certainly those on both sides of the issue who would like to have one). And third, Rep. John Mica isn’t wielding the gavel anymore.

The new chair, Bill Shuster, headed the Rail Subcommittee before taking over the top job, so he’s likely to take a special interest in shepherding the legislation through. And he’s already proven to be a much more bipartisan — and bicameral — collaborator, so many Democrats are hoping for a less rancorous, more inclusive, process.

Even though PRIIA likely won’t bring a sea change in rail policy, insiders say there are a few areas to watch:

State of Good Repair. The Northeast Corridor Commission released a report in January on infrastructure maintenance backlogs on Amtrak’s most popular line. Speeds can’t increase on the corridor without addressing some choke points and repair needs.

Long-Distance Routes. Congressional Republicans like to make fun of Amtrak for running money-losing long-distance routes, and even the Brookings Institution got in on the action recently, recommending that either states shoulder more of the cost burden or the federal government should “scale back” its support. The fact is, those routes are what make Amtrak a national system instead of just a few disconnected lines on the coasts and near Chicago. Still, it’s because of these routes that Amtrak runs at a deficit, and that puts it in the crosshairs of the self-styled hawks in Congress.

…And Shorter Routes. The shorter, state-supported routescould get attention in the drafting of a new bill as well. PRIIA, which passed just as the financial crisis started taking shape in the fall of 2008, standardized what states are required to pay for these shorter routes. (Prior to that, every state had a different deal with Amtrak.) Soon after its passage, however, states started experiencing the financial fallout from the Great Recession and those that ended up paying more under PRIIA had some sticker shock and wanted to renegotiate the terms when they got their bills from Amtrak. The next reauthorization could be the time to do that.

“There’s agreement that the states should be treated like each other,” said Kevin Brubaker, who works on high-speed rail at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “But I think there’s some question about how much the states should be paying versus what the federal government should be paying.”

High-Speed Rail. The PRIIA negotiation will put the future of high-speed rail funding into focus. “There was clearly an interest, for a period of time, in the Republican party, in being against anything President Obama was for,” Brubaker told me. “But President Obama has been reelected, and I think people are ready to move on.”

He noted that despite the three high-profile instances of Republican governors handing back high-speed rail funds to the federal government, 24 governors asked for some of that money when it was made available again — 11 of them Republicans.

Rail safety. Many commuter rail systems say Positive Train Control costs too much. The GPS-based safety system, designed to automatically regulate train speed to prevent crashes and derailments, has an estimated price tag somewhere around $10 billion (for the whole country). Some say the 2015 deadline for all Class I freight railroads to install fully-functional PTC systems is too soon. Still, U.S.DOT isn’t going to want to look like they’re rolling back safety regulations.

Alignment With the Surface Transportation Bill. It’s a blow to multi-modalism for rail to be treated separately from the rest of surface transportation. U.S. DOT wanted that to change last time around, and the Senate Commerce Committee tried to rectify the issue by drafting a rail title for MAP-21, but it got scuttled in conference. Without a rail title, as one Capitol Hill staffer complained, MAP-21 was a highway bill, with a freight section far too skewed toward trucking.

However, since MAP-21 is only a two-year bill, and PRIIA comes due right in the middle of it, it wouldn’t be that hard to extend the current law by one year – keep in mind SAFETEA-LU was extended 11 times over three years.

But AECOM rail expert John Barna says there’s an argument to be made for keeping a separate focus on rail issues. “Everybody was pleased to see that Amtrak finally got some love, attention and money,” he said. Since the passage of PRIIA in 2008, ridership has only gone up, and passenger rail has become a more important mode, so Barna says it would make sense to maintain an independent focus on rail.

Amtrak. This bill is Congressional Republicans’ big chance to air Amtrak’s dirty laundry. Soviet-style monopoly? Sixteen dollar hamburgers? Bring it. Luckily, Mica’s grenade-throwing tactics aren’t the method of the new chair, Bill Shuster, who makes “a more practical argument about wanting to see businesslike Amtrak,” according to Barna. He said Shuster isn’t afraid of spending more money if it’s being spent to enact sound, cost-effective reforms. With any luck, PRIIA will be an opportunity to bring real changes to help Amtrak work better — not just to throw stones.

Funding. Don’t expect the hair-pulling and hand-wringing over funding that we saw with MAP-21. Most of that bill had to be paid for out of a fund that had essentially run dry, and the conversation on new sources of revenue was a quagmire.

Rail, on the other hand, is paid for out of general funds. That’s still tricky, no doubt, as Congress seeks to cut spending everywhere it can, and as rail continues to be a hot-button issue. But at least they’re not bound by a shrinking fund. “With PRIIA, there’s certainly interest in additional funding, but the passage of PRIIA can avoid some of those issues,” Brubaker said. “It really depends how much people want to bite off.” Could there, someday, be a dedicated fund for rail the way there is for highways and transit? The rail sector wouldn’t mind.

Role for the Private Sector. Former Transportation Committee Chair John Mica plans to bring back his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor, but Shuster — who went along with it two years ago — has moved on. Although the Mica plan has been resoundingly rejected, everyone agrees there’s a place for the private sector in rail development — especially in California — and that the federal government needs to do more to encourage investment.

Barna says the private sector could provide supplemental service in California, in addition to the long round-trips that probably won’t run more than every half-hour during peak times. “This is a system that, ultimately, at build-out, can handle three-minute headways,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential to put more service into the system. If you have a private sector orientation, you would be entertaining those ideas.”

Standardized Guidelines. PRIIA could be a good place for the FRA to help out the private sector by setting good guidelines that would apply nationally. “The private sector would love to see those standards, because then they could design to them; the equipment manufacturers could build to them,” Barna said. “And it becomes a normal, rational market.”

Intermediate States. This is an issue that transcends modes but is especially thorny for rail. What should happen when Chicago wants faster trains to connect it to Minneapolis and Detroit, but Wisconsin and Indiana won’t cooperate? Or when a 100-year-old tunnel in New Jersey or Baltimore desperately needs replacement for the health of the entire Northeast Corridor, but the states alone don’t have the money to pay for it? It’s the argument for the federal role in transportation — but something still needs to be done to convince intermediary states, which don’t necessarily stand to gain much from faster rail, to get out of the way.