Hotline #253 - July 26, 2002

Amtrak would get $1.2 billion in fiscal 2003, under a transportation appropriations bill approved July 24 by the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. The full Appropriations Committee approved the bill on July 25. The bill has no number yet; floor consideration is expected in September.

The Bush Administration has been opposing any increase in Amtrak funding over their proposed level of $521 million, absent "long-term reforms," some of which are controversial and threaten the viability of nationwide passenger rail service. However, some Senate leaders have said that such "reforms" must be worked out -- that is, adopted or rejected -- in the form of an authorization bill. There is little time remaining to pass such a bill, and so it is important for Amtrak to get the funding it needs to run another year while Congress and the Administration try to come to an agreement on what to do about passenger rail in the longer-term.

The new bill also funds highways at the current $31.8 billion level, compared with $23.3 billion in the Bush request; $28.9 billion approved by the Senate Budget Committee; and $27.7 billion that the House is preparing to approve (the basic TEA-21 authorization without "RABA" cuts).

As for Amtrak, Senate Transportation Appropriations Chairman Patty Murray (D.-Wash.) said, "I put into our bill what I really believe is the need we have for Amtrak [and] for highway funding, particularly at a time when our economy is floundering." However, Ranking Republican Richard Shelby (Ala.) said, "I believe [the bill] goes too far in throwing money at Amtrak." This is consistent with his past statements.

Normally, the House passes an appropriations bill and sends it to the Senate, but the House subcommittee -- struggling with tighter budget limits -- is not expected to pass its bill until September. Amtrak might have a problem if no appropriations law is enacted by September 30. In such cases, programs are funded beyond October 1 by temporary continuing resolutions that usually provide funding closer to the previous year's level (in this case, $521 million). On the other hand, with Congressional actions since Amtrak's cash crisis (notably the $205 million in supplemental funding), and with new President David Gunn inspiring more confidence on Capitol Hill, it's possible Amtrak might be better protected in a continuing resolution.

In any event, the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee needs to hear strong support for funding Amtrak at $1.2 billion in 2003. Please urge your Representative to make that point to the Subcommittee. For ways to contact Representatives, see the House web site. Also, to see if your own Representative is a member of the Subcommittee, see the House web site.

Yesterday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, in considering S.2452, the National Homeland Security and Combating Terrorism Act of 2002, approved an amendment offered by Thomas Carper (D.-Del.). It would authorize $55 million for "emergency repair, and returning to service of Amtrak passenger cars and locomotives," $778 million for life/safety improvements to Northeast Corridor tunnels, and $375 million "to finance the cost of enhancements to the security and safety of Amtrak rail passenger service." The amendment was approved on a 9-7 party-line vote, except that Susan Collins (R.-Me.) did not vote. S.2452 would create a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

Also yesterday, Rep. Julia Carson (D.-Ind.) introduced H.R.5216, the companion legislation to Senator Hollings' S.1991, the National Defense Rail Act. The bill, introduced with 23 original co-sponsors (including Carson), is identical to what Hollings introduced earlier this year, except for one section that addresses Amtrak's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. As for S.1991, it is up to the Senate leadership to decide when the bill will come to the floor.

The conference agreement on the emergency supplemental appropriations bill, H.R.4775 -- with $205 million needed to keep Amtrak running through September 30 -- passed the House on July 23, and the Senate on July 24. The Amtrak money in H.R.4775 came with no conditions attached to it, except for a requirement that Amtrak share with the appropriations committees any information it gives to the Department of Transportation, under the terms of the June 28 loan agreement between Amtrak and the DOT.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors wrote to President Bush on July 24, urging development of high-speed and conventional rail services. "The tragic events of September 11 have forced our constituents to evaluate viable alternatives to driving and flying, and passenger rail, particularly Amtrak, was there when many of our citizens needed it," wrote Conference President Thomas M. Menino, Mayor of Boston. "It is clear that a regional network of high-speed train corridors feeding into a national system of long distance trains operated by Amtrak is a real alternative, but it dependent on meaningful and sustained federal investment." Those positions were reaffirmed at a mayors' annual meeting in Madison, Wis., in June.

Penn Station in Manhattan has a shortage of police officers, according to the New York Post (July 22). The paper reported Amtrak police force members commenting that their ranks have been spread so thin that three officers sometimes are patrolling the station, rather than the 15 they say are needed. Today, the paper said Amtrak would increase their patrols to six officers, with six more coming from the National Guard. The shortage is caused by Amtrak's going through its overtime pay budget so quickly at the start of the fiscal year last fall -- during the heightened state of emergency in New York at the time -- and by a failure of Congressional proposals to direct additional operating money to Amtrak security items to be enacted.

Amtrak has laid off 88 employees at its three reservations centers, citing increased use of alternative means of booking tickets -- like ticket machines and the Amtrak web site -- and the ongoing reorganization. Booking alternatives have cut into call volume, as have slower than expected summer bookings. Some of that likely is due to headlines in recent weeks calling into question Amtrak's survival this past month.

The reservations area of the Amtrak web site will be taken out of service on July 27, from 12:30 am to 12:00 noon Eastern time, to accommodate an upgrading program.

There is still no opening date set for the delayed, new intermodal terminal at Rensselaer (Albany), N.Y. But the Capitol District Transportation Authority is growing increasingly concerned that Amtrak has not yet signed a lease to use the new facility, which is adjacent to the current Amtrak station. Amtrak and the Authority are continuing their negotiations.

Amtrak's south/westbound Texas Eagle will miss two stops, Marshall and Longview, Tex., for certain dates the rest of the summer, due to a Union Pacific track project. The train will detour through Mount Pleasant (but not stop there). The missed stops will be handled by a reconfiguration of area Thruway bus routes in the area, connecting with the train at Texarkana. The dates -- when the train passes through Texarkana (not origin dates) -- are July 24-27, August 1-11, August 16-24, September 1-5.

The National Transportation Safety Board on July 23 released its investigation findings for a grade-crossing accident near Kissimmee, Fla., on November 17, 2000, between Amtrak's Silver Meteor and a large, low-profile truck carrying heavy equipment to a nearby utility site. The Meteor did not derail that time, but that train and a truck of the same type collided at the same place in 1993, derailing the train and injuring 63. The NTSB is recommending that various federal and state agencies update their highway policies to require such trucks to notify railroads of intent to move over railroad tracks, and to include ground clearance as part of the truck permitting process.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on July 20 opened the first phase of what it calls the "Silver Line." This is a bus service using natural-gas busses and satellite tracking -- items that will become more common on bus systems in the coming years. The Silver Line is controversial because local residents have consistently preferred light-rail service in the corridor -- and indeed, were promised rail service by the MBTA years ago when the Orange rapid transit line was moved further west. Some protesters were present at the opening last week. The bus segment that has opened cost $40 million and links Roxbury with downtown along Washington St. Further extensions are planned to South Station and Logan Airport, for a total cost of $1.6 billion.

A U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco ruled on July 22 that Bay Area transit operators must increase regional ridership by 15% over 1983 levels. The suit was brought against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which is a regional planning organization that coordinates transportation planning and funding. The suit was brought by a coalition of environmental and community groups, represented by Earthjustice (a non-profit law firm that used to be the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund). The plaintiffs sought enforcement of MTC's transportation control measure of 1982, which was intended to allow the MTC to meet its Clean Air Act obligations to reduce air pollution. Despite that proposal, Bay Area transit ridership is up only slightly higher than in 1983, even though overall population has grown 30%. Under the ruling, MTC must do whatever it takes to achieve the transit use increase by late 2006, and show the court what steps it is taking to do that.

Separately, AC Transit and Muni reached an earlier settlement with the plaintiffs stating that they would produce plans to increase transit use if the MTC provides the funding.

Europe's latest high-speed rail line opened yesterday, between Cologne and Frankfurt, Germany. Once every two hours, ICE trains running up to 186 mph will connect the two cities, with the fastest runs taking 1:16 hours, along the new, 110-mile route. That's an average of 86.8 mph, comparable to Acela Express between New York and Washington. There will be hourly service starting in September. Service along the older, extremely scenic route along the Rhine River remains (137 miles, taking about 2:14 hours, average speed 61.3 mph). The ICE trains on the new route are the fastest in Germany. The route runs along an Autobahn for long stretches, and took six years to build.