The future of interstate rail travel is in jeopardy if the White House caves to House Republican spending cuts as part of the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations, advocates say.
Rail supporters and Democratic leaders blasted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for seeking to slash federal spending by 22 percent on housing, transportation, and urban development in a move that would curtail rail safety and stymie the nation’s transportation network for generations.
“Now is the time where we need to invest in furthering and strengthening rail safety,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in New Haven last week. “Speaker McCarthy’s plan is shortsighted and would cut a broad range of critical programs … [and] cut rail safety inspections at a time when train derailments are wrecking havoc on community safety.”
Eighteen months ago, Congress approved a $1.2-trillion infrastructure plan in that included over $102 billion for passenger and freight rail projects. But Republicans’ insistence on using debt ceiling negotiations to rehash a debate over federal spending levels has put a myriad of federal programs, including transportation funding, at risk.
Republican leaders want to cap federal spending well below the rate of inflation for 10 years and take back unspent COVID-19 relief funds, among other things, while the White House has insisted on a clean debt limit vote without spending cuts. If no agreement is reached by the end of the month, the nation could default on its debts.
But if the cuts get approved, the effect on rail transportation would be catastrophic as the country is still trapping with half a dozen freight train derailments this year. Under the GOP plan, the Federal Railroad Administration could have its operations and safety account reduced by $55 million, DeLauro estimated. That could result in 7,500 fewer rail safety inspections and 30,000 fewer miles of track inspected each year, according to the US Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration wants to invest $1 billion in rail safety improvements and research in the upcoming fiscal year following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio in February.
“There could not be a more foolish time implement these cuts,” DeLauro said. “It really is unacceptable.”
The spending cuts could also cripple the country’s vast passenger rail network and stop key projects around country from being constructed.
Using Biden infrastructure money, Amtrak has already started rebuilding deteriorating bridges and tunnels as well as working on $1 billion in station improvement projects in 200 communities. Multiple states and localities have applied for grants from Amtrak to develop passenger rail corridors and Amtrak is expected to begin awarding grants this fall.
But the debt ceiling negotiations have complicated the rail agency’s long-term outlook. Amtrak has not commented on which railroad lines would be targeted in proposed budget cuts but long-planned lines like the Gulf Coast Limited in Alabama and Mississippi, a Boise-Salt Lake City connector, and significant expansions in Texas, Florida, and Northern California could be at risk, rail advocates fear. Service could also lag along the Northeast corridor, the country’s most popular rail line with 260 million annual trips and 2,200 trains each day.
“It would be a real punch in the teeth if right as these grants are starting to be announced we took two giant steps backwards with the passage of an austerity budget,” said Sean Jeans-Gail of the Rail Passengers Association. “We have not heard anything other than top line cuts, but with the understanding the money has to come from somewhere, Amtrak is a target.”