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September 24, 2014

House Committee Advances Passenger Rail Bill
On September 17, 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved H.R. 5449, the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2014 (PRRIA). PRRIA would authorize $5.8 billion in core spending for Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail system, through FY 2018, along with enacting various reforms. The previous long-term federal authorization for passenger rail expired on September 30, 2013. The full text of PRRIA is available here.
PRRIA would provide about $1.45 billion in annual appropriations to Amtrak, a reduction from approximately $1.9 billion authorized each year by the previous bill. However, actual appropriations over the past several years have fallen short of the authorized levels, so PRRIA's funding is in line with recent experience. PRRIA would also provide $300 million annually for discretionary capital grants, along with funding to support the Amtrak Inspector General.
Notably, PRRIA would reform Amtrak's accounting process by separating the funding for the Northeast Corridor from the remainder of the Amtrak network. The Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., is Amtrak's most heavily-traveled and only profitable corridor. Also, Amtrak owns much of the track in the Northeastern Corridor, which requires significant ongoing capital investments from Amtrak. PRRIA would create and capitalize a new Northeast Corridor Improvement Fund, further providing that any profit made along the Northeast Corridor be returned to the Northeast Corridor Improvement Fund. PRRIA would also take steps to improve the management of the Northeast Corridor and to incentivize investment in the corridor.
PRRIA includes other reforms intended to reduce costs (specifically in Amtrak's food and beverage services), accelerate project delivery, improve transparency and accountability, and encourage private sector investment. Examples of these reforms include: 
  • Transparency. PRRIA would require Amtrak to provide updated cost and service information to states, improve the transparency of its budgeting, and conduct a "business case analysis" for the procurement of rolling stock of over $100 million. 
  • Planning. The bill would require Amtrak to develop a capital investment plan, asset management plan, and service development plan for the Northeast Corridor. Further, the bill requires Amtrak to submit a five-year capital and operating plan for the entire Amtrak system. PRRIA would require an independent evaluation of Amtrak's long-distance routes, which typically have the lowest ridership, on-time performance, and cost effectiveness in the Amtrak network. Additionally, PRRIA includes a new provision that prevents U.S. DOT from granting more than $1 billion to a rail project unless the applicant proves it can fully fund its non-federal share of project costs.
  • Private Investment. PRRIA would allow the private sector to use Amtrak right-of-way for telecommunications systems, energy distribution systems, and other activities. Also, the bill encourages private development around Amtrak stations. Further, it would encourage private railroads to tap into the underutilized Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program by streamlining the loan approval process.

Chicago is the hub for Amtrak's Midwestern services and is planned as a future hub in the national high-speed rail system. As noted in a previous Policy Update, the broader tri-state metropolitan Chicago region attracted about 3.7 million riders in 2012, making up 6 percent of total Amtrak ridership at that time. This marks a 64-percent increase in area ridership since 1997, which is a significantly higher rate of growth than Amtrak's national average. GO TO 2040 supports strategic investment in transportation and an increased investment in transit, both of which would be supported to some extent by PRRIA, which seeks to take a more transparent, performance-based approach to the national passenger rail system. CMAP will continue monitoring progress on this bill as it makes its way through the legislative process.