CSG Midwest
Ridership on seven of nine state-supported Amtrak routes in the Midwest has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 10 fiscal years, but has dropped during the last five — a situation that state officials attribute at least in part to construction projects that aim to increase ridership and improve travel times over the long term.
Total ridership on the routes grew 42 percent from fiscal years 2006 to 2016 (up to a total of 2,705,848 passengers), but dropped 8 percent from FY 2011 to FY 2016.
CSG Midwest
The latest tangible sign of high-speed passenger rail service in the Midwest should arrive before the year is out: New, state-of-the-art “Charger” locomotives are ready for delivery, attendees of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission’s annual meeting were told in September.
The locomotives, made in Sacramento, Calif., by Siemens, have been successfully tested along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City, and at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colo., said Dave Ward, vice president of Siemens Locomotives’ North America division.

While not likely to be a major issue in the fall campaign, the future of the nation’s infrastructure did receive some attention in the party platforms released last month in advance of the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions. The platforms reveal very different philosophies that could guide the federal government’s approach to infrastructure in the years to come and have a huge impact for states seeking to meet their future infrastructure needs. But the statements of the presidential candidates themselves on infrastructure issues are also prompting some attention this week.

Efforts around the country to revitalize downtowns and create economically vital and aesthetically pleasing communities, often centered on transit hubs, have created a greater need for a private-public entity that can manage these areas to ensure their long-term sustainability. While most states have laws on the books to enable these special districts, some experts say they are still too difficult to establish and that some of the decades-old laws may need to evolve to reflect the expanding mission of these districts and the changing nature of the communities they serve.

With the passage of the FAST Act by Congress in late 2015, states have some of the long-term certainty they have long sought in the federal transportation program. But can a mostly status quo, five-year transportation bill help states make up for years of inadequate investment in the nation's infrastructure. More than likely, more than a few will still feel compelled to follow in the footsteps of eight states that raised gas taxes in 2015. Some may also turn to tolling and public-private partnerships to help fund projects, although those tools in the toolbox have seen increasing scrutiny and criticism in some parts of the country. State officials face a variety of other challenges as well including how to plan for the technological and demographic changes that could radically alter the transportation landscape in the years ahead and how to deploy and enhance the kinds of transportation options that will make communities into livable, sustainable, economically vital places. Here are my top five transportation issues for 2016 along with more than 500 links to resources from CSG and a variety of other sources where you can read more.

Across the country, transportation options are being deployed to revitalize cities and suburbs, revive sluggish economies and change the way we live and work. In particular, transit stops have become a focal point for many states and communities hoping to generate the development of office, retail and commercial spaces and flourishing, sustainable neighborhoods around them.

CSG Midwest
An estimated 25 percent of all of the nation’s rail traffic goes through Chicago, where 56 Amtrak trains originate or terminate every day and where six of the nation’s seven largest railroads converge. But the Midwest’s largest city isn’t just a hub of rail transportation; it’s also known as a major “chokepoint”: a source of gridlock, poor on-time performance and dispatching problems. In October, Amtrak’s Chicago Gateway Blue Ribbon Panel released its recommendations for loosening the Chicago “chokepoint,” which poses a larger economic vulnerability to the U.S. economy than any other major rail hub. (A panel-commissioned study estimated that up to $799 billion in annual gross domestic product depends on freight rail service through Chicago.)

In case you missed it, I have a new Capitol Research brief out this week on the role of Metropolitan Planning Organizations in transportation planning. That makes it as good a time as any to catch up on a number of recent stories at the intersection of planning and project selection (project selection was one of my Top 5 Issues for 2015, regular readers will recall). I have items on a recent report on congestion and mobility around the nation’s cities, light rail and streetcar projects around the country, the ongoing debate about building new roads versus fixing old ones, how one state is seeking to prioritize transportation projects based on return on investment, and how the preferences of millennials are likely to shape transportation in the years ahead. 

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For states interested in partnering with the federal government on capital improvements to passenger rail, the current options are severely limited. Since fiscal year 2011, the main federal grant program — the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program — has not been funded by the U.S. Congress. That leaves only one funding source, a U.S. grant program known as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), which funds an array of transportation-related projects thought to have a significant impact on the nation, a region or a metropolitan area. In the most recent round of TIGER funding, only one passenger-rail improvement project successfully secured a grant — $12.5 million to upgrade parts of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route in Kansas and Colorado. Matching funds of $9.3 million will come from a mix of state, local and private sources.

Two new reports and a variety of recent developments in states lay bare the challenges of relying on the gas tax as a revenue source to meet transportation needs. I also have updates on some of my “States to Watch in 2015” and the usual roundup of recent items on MAP-21 reauthorization, public-private-partnerships and tolling, and state multi-modal activities.

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