Appropriators Raise Safety at Transportation-HUD Markup
The House Appropriations Committee marked up the fiscal 2016 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill Wednesday with panel members addressing the deadly Amtrak derailment the night before.
Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said the bill’s $55.27 billion discretionary spending succeeded in “making responsible reductions to lower priority programs” and said funding levels show “safety continues to be a priority for the committee.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, said Congress would wait to see the results of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation on what caused the Amtrak derailment. “From those findings, Congress must look at what we can do to try to avoid this ever happening again,” he said.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the committee, and other Democrats said the accident made a case for safety spending. “I do hope we can keep the accident in mind, my colleagues, throughout today’s markup,” Lowey said. “Maybe it can serve as a reminder of the importance of safety programs that are underfunded in this bill.”
She and other Democrats tried to restore funding cuts to housing and transportation programs through amendments during the markup, but most failed to save an amendment from Lowey that increases by $130 million the funding set aside for Highway Rail Grade Crossings in the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Formula, through offsets in other programs.
The bill would provide more than $40.25 billion from the Highway Trust Fund to be spent on the federal-aid highways program, a level equal to the fiscal 2015 and $9.8 billion less than the president requested.
Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., the subcommittee ranking member, said regardless of attempts to amend the bill Wednesday, “there’s no way to sufficiently address all of the gaps in funding throughout this bill.” He introduced an amendment that would increase capital funding for Amtrak in the bill from $850 million to more than $2.1 billion among other spending increases, which was rejected by the committee.
In its report on the fiscal 2016 spending bill Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee noted the March passage of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015. That bill broke funding for Amtrak into two lines of business: the Northeast Corridor Improvement Fund and the National Network, which includes long-distance trains and state supported routes, and overhead.
It also included authorizations for national infrastructure investments, or capital projects. “The committee looks forward to the enactment of a final bill,” the report said.
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service is its most popular and the one most likely to be profitable. The accident Tuesday will severely disrupt movement on the corridor.
But the House Appropriations Committee report Tuesday complained that until recently Amtrak’s budget requests made it impossible to discern what funding was required for each line of business. The report credited Amtrak this year with providing sufficient detail.
The safety of passenger and freight rail has taken on growing importance after a series of accidents in recent years. Lawmakers and regulators have been looking at technology requirements that could reduce accidents, including positive train control on both passenger and freight trains and better standards for crude oil tank cars that are less likely to puncture and lead to fires.
Appropriators could use discussion on the Transportation-HUD bill, which deals with spending on all aspects of public transportation and infrastructure to address the Amtrak accident.