Passenger rail services under threat in Trump’s new budget

President Donald Trump’s first official budget document, which proposes large funding cuts to the country’s Amtrak, transit, and commuter rail programs, has been condemned by rail associations for risking vital access for almost 150 million Americans.


Amtrak

On 16 March, the Trump administration published the 2018 federal budget, which proposes a $2.4bn, or 13%, reduction to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

It terminates all federal support for Amtrak’s long-distance train services, “which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses”, the document reads.

Critics have warned that in effect, this could potentially cut off rail access to huge swathes of the US, particularly in the south of the country.

In 2016, Amtrak received $1.3bn from the federal government, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

The 2018 budget proposal also suggests eliminating the $499mn currently dedicated to the TIGER grant program, which awards investment to passenger rail and transit projects deemed of national significance, as well as $2.3bn from the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” Capital Investment Program.

Instead, “future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects”.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) warned that the cuts jeopardise Amtrak services connecting 220 towns and cities, which would see 144.6 million Americans directly impacted.

“It’s ironic that President Trump’s first budget proposal undermines the very communities whose economic hardship and sense of isolation from the rest of the country helped propel him into office,” NARP president Jim Mathews said in a press statement.

“What’s more, these proposed cuts come as President Trump continues to promise that our tax dollars will be invested in rebuilding America's infrastructure. Instead, we have seen an all-out assault on any project—public and private—that would advance passenger rail.”

The Department of Transportation lists “livability” as one of its core priorities on its website, namely the vision of enabling “transportation policies that focus on people and communities who use the transportation system”.

At present, eight active Competitive Discretionary Programs can be found on FRA’s website, including grants for safety improvements to railroad infrastructure, Positive Train Control (PTC) projects, and magnetic levitation projects, among others.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) also expressed disappointment at the proposals, saying that defunding could affect projects in Kansas City, Dallas, Texas, Indianapolis, and Fort Lauderdale, among others.

While the administration has long advertised dedicating $1tn to infrastructure, “the White House is recommending cutting billions of dollars from existing transportation and public transit infrastructure programs," APTA officials said in a statement.

The 13% reduction to the DOT joins a list of much more drastic cuts to other areas, such as the 31% from the Environmental Protection Agency, 29% from the State Department, and 21% from the Agriculture and Labor Departments.

The new financial plan is yet to be considered by the House and Senate Budget Committees and the Congressional Budget Office.