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— by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Last month, President Barack Obama unveiled a $3.77 trillion fiscal-year 2014 budget proposal that includes $77 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), a 6 percent increase compared with FY2012 enacted levels.
The spending plan includes $11.6 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and makes rail "the feature" of the FY2014 USDOT budget, said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo in an interview with Progressive Railroading.
"This is an entirely new budget approach that starts talking about rail much more holistically and much more comprehensively," he said. "It's a bolder rail proposal that incorporates both intercity passenger rail and freight rail."
The Obama administration proposes allocating $6.4 billion of the FRA's budget to establish a National High Performance Rail System program. The program is part of a five-year, $40 billion reauthorization proposal to support the existing intercity passenger-rail system, a rail service improvement program, and research, development and technology.
Of that $6.4 billion, $2.7 billion would be allocated for Amtrak's current services, including: $675 million for Northeast Corridor infrastructure and equipment repair; $300 million to help states transition to new funding requirements for Amtrak service as authorized under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act; $800 million for long-distance route operations; and $925 million to improve the efficiency of Amtrak's "backbone" rail facilities and operations, implement positive train control (PTC) on Amtrak routes and bring stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Another $3.25 billion is proposed to develop new "high-performance" passenger-rail networks and fund PTC for commuter railroads.
"This would, once again, be a competitive grant process, and we'd really be looking at good planning and making sure initiatives are market driven," said Szabo.
The budget includes $150 million to address major bottlenecks and congestion that reduce freight- and passenger-rail reliability on shared infrastructure, and $70 million for planning that would guide future investments in the freight- and passenger-rail systems. It also proposes $190 million for freight capacity upgrades.
"The administration understands the growing role that freight rail will have to play in meeting future transportation needs," said Szabo. "This will allow for investment in projects that have public benefit, like the Heartland Corridor or Crescent Corridor."
Meanwhile, as part of the administration's "Fix it First" proposal, which calls for immediate investments to repair infrastructure, the FRA would receive $3 billion for passenger- and freight-rail capital projects and $2 billion to repair and rehabilitate Amtrak infrastructure.
The administration also calls for restructuring the Highway Trust Fund and renaming it the Transportation Trust Fund.
"There would be a fund in there for rail, which puts it on parity with other transportation modes," Szabo said.
The trust fund would receive an initial influx of about $300 billion, which would come from cost savings from winding down wars overseas, Szabo adds.
"Broader than rail, that would fully fund the needs of the Transportation Trust Fund through the year 2020," he said.