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Nine Days in September: Congress’s Chance to Break the Gridlock

I hope you all had a good Labor Day. Streetsblog is back to work today, and you probably are too. But Congress? Not until next week. Every time there's a Monday holiday, Congress takes the whole week off, and they're milking the last moments of their August recess.

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It's no wonder lawmakers are procrastinating. They have a lot of unpleasant business to tackle when they get back, and not a lot of time to do it.

The start of fiscal year 2014 is less than a month away, and there are only nine legislative days between now and then. In those nine days, Congress is going to have to make some decisions about spending -- including transportation spending. In an ideal world, they'd also give some serious thought to passenger rail policy.

Here's an overview of the major transportation issues Congress should be addressing.

First, the rail reauthorization

The five-year Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) expires September 30. This spring, Congressional Republicans confidently pledged that it would be reauthorized this year -- and then promptly dropped the ball (though, according to a spokesperson for the House Transportation Committee, they are working on language for the bill and will continue to do so into the fall.)

The fact is, it would have been nice to have something new in place before PRIIA’s expiration, but it’s not actually necessary. The current bill will just keep rolling over until Congress actually bothers to pass a new one. It’s not like the surface transportation bill, which needs to be reauthorized or extended before it expires. (The transportation bill is funded with Highway Trust Fund money that doesn’t go through an appropriations process, and the contract authority for that money does need to be current in order for it to be spent.)

But lots of programs get appropriations every year without ever being authorized. (Think TIGER.) Amtrak was one of those for a long time -- before PRIIA, there was no rail authorization in place for years.

“An authorization that doesn’t authorize sufficient funding and contains bad policies would be worse than no authorization,” said Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. But a well-designed authorization -- “if it gives Amtrak the resources it needs to grow and modernize without micromanaging the company or imposing too many specific mandates” -- could be a huge boost for American passenger rail.

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