Once-in-a-generation opportunities in passenger rail—but the time to act is now

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T4America works with partners all over the country to develop passenger rail service, and we’re telling them all the same thing: now is the time to act. We’ve never seen this amount of support for passenger rail from Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration, and federal funding is there. But there’s a procedure—with deadlines—to follow. Here’s how to take advantage in the year ahead.

Amtrak Cascades at Mt. Vernon station. Photo via Flickr/Joe A. Kunzler Photo

Legislative and administrative stars aligning

For decades, the development of a national passenger rail system has been low on the priority list for Congress. Who could blame them? So many of their districts are poorly served, and Amtrak focused almost exclusively on the Northeast Corridor and left the rest of the country out to dry. (Read more about the history of Amtrak and Congress here.)  

In 2021, despite Amtrak’s lack of focus on the national system, Congress made leaps and bounds in their support for passenger rail by passing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which funded the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Amtrak at historic levels. The IIJA also re-oriented the mission of the national passenger rail system toward serving more communities, both urban and rural, across the country. In the past, Amtrak has been required to make a profit—unlike other modes of transportation—above all other goals, often to the detriment of its riders. 

If Amtrak, states, interstate compacts, regional passenger rail authorities, and localities play their cards right, these historic funding levels coming from the FRA and the renewed national mandate for Amtrak can result in a much improved and expanded national network of passenger rail. The IIJA charted out a process for this expansion, which focuses infrastructure improvements to passenger rail corridors within interstate compacts. We have narrowed this process down to three steps, which we outline below.

Step 1: Corridors

The first and most immediate step in advancing passenger rail service across the country is the identification and development of passenger rail corridors. The IIJA created the Corridor Identification and Development Program (CIDP), which is designed to focus federal funding on key passenger rail corridors across the country. The term “corridor” refers to a stretch of rail right of way where applicants can build or improve station stops—as well as the rail infrastructure between them—to give more people access to the route. 

Where will these corridors be built? The short answer is: we’ll have to wait and see. States, localities, interstate compacts, or other applicants will determine where they want to establish corridors based on many economic and social factors. But the possibilities are immense. FRA has challenged state and local leaders to, in their words, “dream big” with the CIDP. Governments from around the country have already expressed their interest in developing corridors, which Amtrak presented during a public board meeting in December (rendering of Amtrak’s map pictured below, with potential corridors in light blue).

Recreation of map presented at Amtrak’s public board meeting (Source: Ryan C on Twitter)

As an incentive to create official corridors, the FRA is offering successful applicants $500,000 in no-match federal funds to start planning their corridors. New corridors will also get preferential treatment during future federal grant applications. These incentives are what make applying to the CIDP a critical next step for the development of passenger rail service. 

The CIDP is currently open, with applications due March 20.

Step 2: Infrastructure improvements

Officially recognized passenger rail compacts and corridors will be at the front of the line at FRA for funding opportunities. The IIJA greatly expanded the two main federal passenger rail infrastructure programs: the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program (Partnership Program) and the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program. This should encourage regional, state, and local governments to apply, given that the possibility of receiving an award is higher than it ever has been. 

The Partnership Program is live right now, with applications due on March 7.

These funding opportunities can be used to plan for, design, and construct grade crossing eliminations, stations and multimodal station areas, track improvements, and create capacity improvements (addressing bottlenecks). These improvements are all critical for the safety and viability of passenger rail service on new and expanded corridors. In addition to these infrastructure improvements, compacts and corridors will have priority in applying for operational support through programs like the Restoration and Enhancement (R&E) Program to begin to operate new or restored passenger rail service.

Step 3: Compacts

In order to solidify the gains made from forming corridors and funding infrastructure improvements, interested states should form interstate rail compacts. The IIJA created the Interstate Rail Compact Program (IRC) to help states work together to further the development of regional passenger rail networks across the country. 

The IRC Program is seeking to build off the success of interstate rail compacts like the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), the oldest rail compact in the country. The SRC consists of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and works to coordinate stakeholders in those three states to restore passenger rail service throughout the deep south. Watch this video to see the SRC’s work in action.

Through the IRC, the FRA is seeking to create 10 such compacts (SRC included) to serve 10 different regions across the country. During the formation process, the FRA will support these compacts in building coalitions of support, identifying opportunities for new or restored passenger rail service, and pursuing federal funding. 

The IRC is likely to open later this year.

Support is fleeting

Congress is changing hands. Sam Graves, who has little to no track record on passenger rail, is the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. We expect Ted Cruz—an opponent of passenger rail—to run the Senate Commerce Committee if Republicans take the Senate next cycle. 

This constant shuffle in Congress means that, at any moment, the programs generously funded by the IIJA could once again be defunded. So while the IRC and CIDP will be available in coming years, this year is the only guaranteed opportunity for full program funding and support from the FRA. 

Local advocates have opportunities to get involved as well. Round up your state or regional passenger rail authority. If you’re looking to get long-distance service, find ways to participate in the FRA’s Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study. If you want to see your community served by new or improved passenger rail corridors, now is the time to go out and get things moving.

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