Two recently announced transportation funding initiatives are contradictory to one another in pursuing transit and rail infrastructure improvements.  The Trump administration has targeted reducing Amtrak’s overall funding as part of its recently released budget (which will again be opposed in Congress).  Closer to home, the Northam Administration, with support from the democratically controlled Virginia General Assembly, is proposing substantial increases in state funding for rail and transit.  Both proposals are summarized below.

Sustainable, Streamlined Funding 

Despite Virginians driving more than ever, revenues from motor vehicle taxes have continued to drop. This trend will only get worse, with KPMG estimating a 33 percent reduction in Virginia gas tax collections by 2030 resulting in revenues below $500 million in 2030. 

This legislation increases the sustainability of our transportation funding model by:

  • Raising the gas tax by 4 cents/year for 3 years and indexing it to inflation
  • Introducing a tiered approach to capturing fuel efficiency
  • Cutting passenger vehicle registration fees in half, starting in FY22 

Currently, transportation revenues are distributed in an opaque and confusing manner.
This legislation streamlines distribution by funding all programs through the Commonwealth Transportation Fund. 

Transforming Rail and Transit 

We cannot pave our way out of gridlock. This bold package invests in transit to ensure Virginians and goods can move quickly and efficiently across our Commonwealth. 

  • Creates the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority to promote and expand passenger and commuter rail service throughout Virginia;
  • Stabilizes transit revenues
  • Establishes a Transit Incentive Program, which will promote improved transit service and reduce barriers to transit use by low-income individuals.

Amtrak is Again in the Feds Crosshairs

Try and try, and try again.  Since the Trump Administration came to Washington, dismantling Amtrak has been a priority, only being saved by the bi-partisan Congressional members whose districts are served by this vital passenger rail service.  The most recent Administration budget again aims to eviscerate Amtraks budget, and basically forcing it to cease service to many communities that sorely rely on its service.  

A recent Washington Post article highlights the Administration’s efforts (Luz Lazo – 2/11/2020), and cites recent statistics that show that Amtrak is actually “turning the corner” on its attractiveness for riders.  In fact, the WaPo article points out that:

“Amtrak carried a record 32.5 million passengers last year, with record growth in the Northeast Corridor and state-supported lines. Total operating revenue rose to $3.3 billion, up 3.6 percent from the previous year, the company said. It’s projected that in 2020, the railroad will have positive earnings for the first time in its history.

Its latest ridership report reflects a year-over-year increase of 800,000 passengers, Amtrak’s highest. Ridership for all Northeast Corridor services reached 12.5 million, an increase of 3.3 percent from 2018. State supported routes saw a 2.4 percent increase, reaching 15.4 million passengers. Amtrak’s 15 long distance routes carried 4.5 million passengers last year, an increase of less than 1 percent.

This “positive” report was met with an Administrative budgetary slashing, including “reductions in funding to the U.S.’s busiest rail corridor, the Northeast, to $325 million from $700 million. Funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains would decrease to $611 million from $1.3 billion under the plan, which intends to phase out aid for long-distance service.”  This proposed budget represent a more than 50% cut to Amtrak’s long-distance services!

Ironically, the Administration’s plans will drastically curtail service to many rural areas (i.e., long-distance service), the supposed heartland of this Administration’s support.  Past, similar proposals have been fought off by bi-partisan support, yet during a presidential election year, who knows what might happen?

Transportation planners across the country agree that rail passenger service in the US must be subsidized, just like roads are subsidized.  Federal investments in infrastructure and subsidizing services should be a priority within the federal government’s attempts to reduce greenhouse gases and to provide mobility options to residents across the US.