A passenger rail line project touted as a major connectivity and economic boost to the Fort Worth region and beyond could soon be at risk amid proposed federal budget cuts to Amtrak.
Since 2006, members of the I-20 Corridor Council have been working with Amtrak and other regional partners to connect Fort Worth to Atlanta, creating an east-west connection that could eventually be part of the transnational corridor between Los Angeles and New York City.
The passage of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021 — which allocated $66 billion in rail service investment — made the 815-mile long-distance route between Fort Worth and Atlanta more of a reality. However, the U.S. House’s proposal to cut Amtrak’s 2024 budget by 64% has rail advocates worried about its impact on major rail projects, including the Fort Worth-Atlanta line.
“Amtrak has advised us that this (project) is one of their top three priorities,” said Richard Anderson, chairman of the I-20 Corridor Council. “I would anticipate that, if there’s that draconian of a reduction, that we will see a corresponding reduction, if not elimination, of the I-20 corridor.”
Amtrak is currently working on extending two service lines out of Fort Worth. The first would connect Fort Worth to Atlanta, along Interstate 20, adding the missing link from Marshall to Meridian, Mississippi. This project would connect the current Texas Eagle line, which runs between San Antonio and Chicago, and the Crescent line, which runs from New Orleans to New York.
The second project would extend the Heartland Flyer line, which currently runs between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, up to Newton, Kansas.
A possible Amtrak line between Fort Worth and El Paso is being explored as part of the Federal Railroad Administration Long-Distance Service Study. This rail line was lost more than 50 years ago, said Marc Magliari, senior public relations manager at Amtrak. A report is expected in the spring or summer of 2024.
The fate of House Resolution 4820, the appropriations act that determines Amtrak’s 2024 budget, remains in limbo after a scheduled vote was postponed indefinitely following pushback from some lawmakers over the impact of the funding cut.
These financial slashes come at a time when Amtrak planned to expand its network outside the Northeast corridor, capitalizing on the funding boost from the 2021 infrastructure law.
“There certainly are the unions that represent our employees, and the Rail Passenger Association, which represents our passengers, have been pretty outspoken about how devastating (those cuts) would be. And we agree,” Magliari said.
Rick Harnish, executive director of the High-Speed Rail Alliance, said the budget cut is a statement from some members of the House: “If you don’t drive, then you’re not really welcome to participate in our society.”
“The infrastructure law invested enough to get the program started, and what the car-centric people are proposing is to totally gut the ability of the agencies to even take advantage of that money,” Harnish said.
How has Amtrak’s funding dwindled over the years?
Amtrak applied for several $500,000 grants from the Federal Railroad Administration to help the Fort Worth-Atlanta project and eventually extend the Heartland Flyer line from Fort Worth to Newton, Kansas.
This grant is part of the Corridor Identification and Development Program and is funded by the infrastructure law. Whether Amtrak has received the grant has yet to be announced.
“That’s the first step toward going with the implementation, which will entail environmental studies and so forth, even though it’s going to be on the existing right of way,” Anderson said.
The grants may help get some projects started, but the money that comes from the budget, which is needed to operate the rail lines, will be affected, Harnish said.
“The money to run the trains is not (available) and, to some degree, the money to actually implement the capital projects is not because some of that is operating expenses,” Harnish said. “What Congress is proposing to do is cut the ongoing support of the Amtrak organization, period. And so it really is cutting the program off at the knees before it can get started.”
Anderson of the I-20 Corridor Council said funding for these rail projects is about more than just adding service between cities — it’s an investment in economic development and mass transit.
The Fort Worth Amtrak station is the most visited in Texas, welcoming over 93,000 riders in 2022.
Once the Fort Worth to Atlanta line is extended, the new service could generate an economic boost of $63.5 million in annual benefits — including jobs — in Marshall, Longview, Mineola, Dallas and Fort Worth, according to a report from the Rail Passenger Association.
“I mean, does rail cost money? Yes. Highways cost money, airports cost money, docks and dams all cost money,” Anderson said. “Transportation is a function of the federal government. The only private transportation we’ve got is toll roads, and those aren’t very popular.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ssadek19.
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