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— by Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
A transportation spending bill signed by President Barrack Obama on Dec. 16 ensured two vital things will occur in fiscal-year 2015: a seventh round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and continued federal support for Amtrak. But it also meant one vital thing wouldn't happen in that timeframe: more federal funding for high-speed rail (HSR).
The $1.1 trillion Omnibus Appropriations and Continuing Resolution provides $1.14 billion in capital funds and $250 million in operating funds for Amtrak in FY2015, which ends Sept. 30, but allocates no funds for HSR. In FY2014, Amtrak received $1.05 billion in capital funds and $340 million in operating grants.
The measure also freezes formula dollars from the Highway Trust Fund for transit at current levels, about $8.6 billion.
The transit "New Starts" and "Small Starts" programs netted $2.1 billion, including $172 million for such small-start projects as streetcar systems and bus rapid transit lines. Total transit funding rose slightly from $10.8 billion in FY2014 to $11 billion in FY2015.
"Congress' end-of-year activity included strong funding for public transportation infrastructure that puts and gets Americans to work. However, Congress failed to act proactively to extend the higher levels of transit commuter benefits," said Michael Melaniphy, president and chief executive officer of the American Public Transportation Association, in a prepared statement. "Ultimately, Congress has much to do [in 2015] to fund and authorize a long-term surface transportation program."
During his year-end press conference held Dec. 19, Obama said he believes Congress can reach a bipartisan agreement on a long-term transportation bill this year after several temporary extensions.
"I've been on this hobby horse now for six years ... we've got a lot of infrastructure we've got to rebuild in this country if we're going to be competitive," he said, according to a news item issued by The Hill. "Roads, bridges, ports, airports, electrical grids, water systems, sewage systems ... we are way behind."
The TIGER VII grants should help in that regard — at least a little bit. The omnibus bill provides $500 million for the grant program's seventh round, down from $600 million in FY2014.
The House had sought to limit TIGER grants to highway, bridge and port projects. But the program now can keep supporting projects that take a multimodal approach and address needs as communities define them, according to Transportation for America, an alliance of local elected, business and civic leaders who seek a robust U.S. transportation system.
Overall, FY2015 funding for transit, Amtrak and the TIGER program is far below what's needed to help modernize the nation's transportation infrastructure, said Midwest High Speed Rail Association officials in a Dec. 15 newsletter.
"Neither party made a point to emphasize transportation, and as a result, funding remained about the same as it has been for years," they said. "While this is disappointing, it's hardly a surprise. The real issue is not that this particular Congress didn't show leadership, it's that our funding status quo — the numbers Congress reverts to — does not reflect the needs of most Americans."