As the budget deal that finally prevented a shutdown of federal agencies took hold, Congress passed a one-week budget extension with a big "cut" in rail grants. Uh, sort of.
Out of the first $2 billion in immediate spending reductions Congress passed following the April 8 accord, a whopping $1.5 billion was from the signature transportation program President Obama has been known for so far - his High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program.
But the cut applies to money out of the fiscal 2011 budget that Obama never asked for, money his Department of Transportation never counted on. The DOT still has its hands full trying to allocate the last of its $8 billion in rail grants from the 2009 stimulus package, plus $2.5 billion more from a follow-up pool Congress put into the 2010 budget. For 2011, Obama had asked for $1 billion.
That passenger rail program is putting billions of dollars into rail routes owned or used by major freight railroads. It is done in the name of adding or improving the regular-speed Amtrak trains that travel those corridors, but DOT and state officials make clear that freight as well as passenger service benefits from the money. It goes into track and signal upgrades, construction of double tracks and side passing tracks and bridges to separate roads from track crossings - all measures that can add capacity for whoever uses the route and allow faster average train speeds from fewer interruptions.
However, the passenger rail program is also a fat target for many who see it as big-government spending that tries to force people into a transport mode. Three governors turned down about $3.6 billion in passenger rail money, two for Amtrak routes and one for what could have been the first U.S. bullet train.
Yet many other states were happy to ask for that money. The DOT has already distributed some of it, while applicants for a newly opened pool of rejected money came in with nearly $10 billion worth of projects vying for about $2.4 billion in grant funds.
Against that background, cutting $1.5 billion in rail funds for the rest of 2011 is real enough. This money was building up because previous short-term budget extensions never touched it, so what was already budgeted for 2010 was simply repeating for 2011. But it is not really controversial - the DOT wasn't planning on it, so it's an easy give for the administration.
The real fight over Obama's rail plans is yet to come. In his broad transportation outline for the next six years, he wants to invest $53 billion in that program. How much he gets, and how it will be spent, is to be worked out in the coming surface transportation bill. House and Senate committees will work on that legislation this month and next, and the rail portion alone could stir plenty more debate. Until then, losing $1.5 billion that was not in his budget anyway is the kind of transportation cut the president is more than willing to make.