In its 2018 appropriations bill for Transportation-Housing Urban Development (THUD), Congress is providing a major boost to passenger rail funding that will improve rail safety, reliability, convenience, accessibility and speed. But will Ohio sit out this opportunity as it did before by scuttling its 3C rail project in 2010?
The bill includes $2.813 billion for intercity passenger rail – an increase of $1.3 billion over last year! Urban and regional passenger rail, funded through transit appropriations, was also increased thereby providing older urban rail systems like the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority to maintain a state of good repair.
Also, subsidies for aviation and highways were increased without raising user fees to pay for them. Meanwhile Amtrak covers 95 percent of its costs from customer revenues and relies on a mostly private-sector owned and funded rail network.
Federal intercity rail funding includes $1.9 billion for Amtrak ($650 million for the Northeast Corridor and $1.3 billion for the National Network); $593 million for the Consolidated Rail Improvement, which includes $250 million for Positive Train Control implementation; $250 million for the State of Good Repair program; and $20 million for the Rail Restoration program, which will be instrumental in restoring rail service to the Gulf Coast and possibly daily Cardinal service. All of these are significant increases over 2017 funding levels and are consistent with levels authorized in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act that Congress passed in 2016 (see chart below).
Note that this doesn’t include already existing and substantial federal financing programs for passenger rail and station-area real estate development, namely the $35 billion Railroad Rehabilitation Improvement Financing (RRIF) available through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Private Activity Bonds (PAB) from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Amtrak, Brightline, and other railroads have used these programs to expand, improve, or start new services.
The THUD bill also provides $13.5 billion in total budgetary resources for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – $1 billion above the fiscal year 2017 enacted level and $2.3 billion above the Trump Administration’s request. Transit formula grants for urban and rural systems were increased by nearly $400 million to $9.7 billion – consistent with the FAST Act – to help local communities build, maintain, and ensure the safety of their mass transit systems.
More than $400 million was added to Capital Investment Grants transit projects, totaling $2.6 billion. “New Starts” projects are funded at $1.5 billion, Core Capacity projects at $716 million, and Small Starts projects at $400 million. These programs provide competitive grant funding for major transit capital investments – including light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail – that are planned and operated by local communities. But the bill limits the federal match for “New Starts” projects to 51 percent, thus requiring communities and states to increase their funding shares if they want to access these federal dollars.
Lastly, Congress agreed to triple the funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, from $500 million in 2017 to $1.5 billion. TIGER program grants are intended to be used as “gap funding” – to fill the remaining gap in funding for multi-modal transportation projects that already are substantially funded. This program will fund states’ and local communities’ most critical transportation projects, and language is included in the bill to ensure that at least 30 percent of these funds go to rural communities.
All Aboard Ohio’s assessment
Naturally, All Aboard Ohio is very happy that Congress is increasing funding for passenger rail, public transportation and multi-modal investment and rejected President Trump’s calls to slash federal funding. Congress is responding to the needs of its constituencies as our aging Baby Boomers demand more diverse mobility options, the younger generation seek to live in less car-dependent settings to reduce costs of living, and the urban and rural poor need much greater access to jobs (only 1-in-4 jobs in Ohio’s metro areas are accessible within a 90-minute one-way transit trip).
“We are grateful to the Republican-led Congress for providing a transportation policy direction to states like Ohio,” said All Aboard Ohio Executive Director Ken Prendergast. “Transportation and infrastructure investment is one area in which Congress is acting in a responsible, bipartisan manner. We encourage all Ohioans to thank their Congressperson and Senators for their vote to boost investment in a multi-modal transportation system that creates jobs and improves access to jobs.”
Unfortunately, Ohio appears ready to sit out this boost in funding for passenger rail and, to a large degree, for transit expansion as well. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and its Ohio Rail Development Commission have $0 in state matching funds budgeted for passenger rail to leverage a federal match. Furthermore, ODOT/ORDC have no funding-ready plans in place to legally tap the new federal dollars although one metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), is developing such a plan for Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago passenger rail. The lack of activity is not for a lack of needs, as All Aboard Ohio revealed in its Ohio Passenger Rail Assessment of Needs report a year ago. Several Ohio cities have passenger rail projects ready to go now and could benefit from these added funds.
“That report also showed what Ohio’s neighboring states are doing with passenger rail development, which is a lot,” Prendergast said. “And they have more funding-ready plans coming forward to further increase safety, service frequency and speeds above 100 mph to boost their economies. Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Illinois, and now West Virginia are all in a position to use their passenger rail programs to leverage the new federal funds. Ohio is the nation’s most populous state without any passenger rail development program.”
What Ohio cities/MPOs/state can do for passenger rail this year:
- ODOT/ORDC should include the FRA’s new Midwest Regional Rail Plan in their Access Ohio 2045 plan and State Rail Plan as well as the findings and recommendations from our Ohio Passenger Rail Assessment of Needs report.
- As ODOT/ORDC begins planning its 2020-21 biennial budget in the coming months, include $12 million per year in state funds/credits from non-motor vehicle fuel tax sources for passenger rail planning, development and operations.
- Although more federal funding will be available next year, cities (or their MPOs) like Oxford, Sandusky and Toledo can apply for federal funds today to complete the funding packages for building/improving their Amtrak/multi-modal station facilities.
- Cities like Bryan, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Mentor and Ravenna-Kent should secure local funding sources now and apply for federal matching funds through their MPOs to create funding-ready plans for new or improved multi-modal transportation centers that include rail in their communities.
Congress provided an additional $834 million in transit infrastructure grants compared to the fiscal year 2017 level. This includes $400 million to help communities modernize their bus and rail systems, and $400 million for capital assistance to transit systems across the country to maintain a state of good repair. There is also more funding for “new starts” projects (such as for rail and bus rapid transit) but the maximum federal share is capped at 51 percent. Even so, there are no Ohio new-start transit projects that have funding-ready plans in place, although Greater Cleveland and Greater Cincinnati have projects that are close.
What Ohio cities/counties/MPOs/state can do for transit this year:
- ODOT should update its excellent 2015 Ohio Transit Needs Study in its Access Ohio 2045 plan.
- As ODOT begins planning its 2020-21 biennial budget in the coming months, include approximately $75 million per year in state funds/credits from non-motor vehicle fuel tax sources for public transportation planning, development and operations.
- Transit agencies that have not already done so should establish a new vision for serving community needs, including becoming more engaged with the community and customers, a more diversified funding base, better ways of delivering services, and collaborating or combining seamless services with transit agencies in surrounding areas.
- Cities, counties and major employers need to augment local funding to buy into their transit systems’ new vision so they can improve and expand the reach and speed of their transit systems to access jobs farther away from the established transit network.
“It’s time for Ohio to better position itself to tap into this new funding opportunity from the federal government,” Prendergast said. “It’s time to reconsider the model of transportation investment with one that is more responsive, multi-modal and better funded at the local, regional and state levels. Otherwise, this opportunity will leave Ohio at the station — again.”