WASHINGTON — Congressional appropriators will be hard-pressed to provide more funding for high-speed rail for fiscal 2011 unless there is clear evidence that the $10.5 billion lawmakers approved for the sector has been used by state and local governments, a congressional staffer said yesterday at a rail industry meeting here.
“This year is going to be pretty tough,” said Sylvia Garcia, a staff member of the House Appropriations transportation, housing, and urban development subcommittee.
Garcia warned that the size of the overall budget, much less the transportation portion, is still uncertain. Congress has not yet voted on a budget resolution. If or when that happens, it may decide to either freeze or decrease spending in fiscal 2011, she said.
The Senate Budget Committee approved a budget resolution late last month that included about $10 billion less in new budget authority for transportation in the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, than in the current one, but about the same level of outlays.
Congress last year approved $8 billion for high-speed rail grants that will mostly set the stage for rail lines in California, Florida, and Midwestern corridors. It approved another $2.5 billion for fast rail in this year’s appropriations, after President Obama requested $1 billion annually to fund its development.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to have a groundbreaking for the state’s high-speed rail line before the end of his last year in office, which is this year, said Rod Diridon Sr., chairman of the American Public Transportation Association’s intercity rail committee and member and past chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority’s board.
But that has not yet happened.
“There’s $10.5 billion out there, and nobody is really seeing anything,” said Garcia, who joined other congressional staffers at the event hosted by the Railway Supply Institute.
Though she acknowledged that high-speed rail projects do not break ground overnight, Garcia said “one of our biggest issues” on the Appropriations Committee is that without demonstrable results, “it’s hard for us to go to bat” for additional funding to support an initiative.
“There’s a lot of support for high-speed rail, but it’s a new program,” Garcia said.
Additionally, the Senate is bogged down with several high-profile issues, including climate legislation and a new Supreme Court justice nominee, she noted.
But more rail investment could arrive through a separate vehicle from appropriations, said Paul Schmid, legislative assistant for Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del.
Carper cosponsored a bill with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in 2008 that would allow issuance of $700 million of tax-credit bonds called “qualified Amtrak” bonds for each fiscal year between 2009 and 2012, of which up to $300 million could be designated for any individual state.
That legislation is “likely” to be re-introduced this summer, Schmid said.