Hotline #755 - April 20, 2012

With the House and Senate having passed transportation reauthorizations as of Wednesday of this week, Congressional leaders are expected to name conferees sometime next week to begin negotiations over the many differences between the two proposals for a short-term surface transportation reauthorization.

On April 18, the House passed a 90-day extension by a vote of 293 to 127, which would continue existing surface transportation law until the end of September.  In what Congressional Quarterly called “an unusual confession of failure for a Speaker,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) admitted that he was dissatisfied with the level of Republican support for the multi-year transportation proposal put forth by the GOP.

“If I had my druthers, [our long-term bill] would have been on the floor six weeks ago. But there aren’t 218 votes,” said Boehner.

Senate leadership has sounded a cautious note of optimism, saying that the 90-day House bill should serve as a starting point for negotiations to reconcile the House-version with the Senate’s version, which would extend surface transportation law through the end of 2013.

“The fact that the House voted to take a step forward on a surface transportation bill is encouraging,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA).  “As long as they follow through and immediately appoint conferees so that Congress can complete its work and get a bill to the President’s desk.”

Given the gulf between the two proposals, and the many jurisdictional issues covered by the titles, staffers from both bodies are predicting an unusually large amount of conferees.

Stay tuned to NARP’s website to find out more details as they break!

Senate begins work on transportation budget for Fiscal Year 2013

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a draft fiscal 2013 spending bill that would provide $53.4 billion in discretionary spending for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments by a vote of 28 to 1—a decline of nearly $4 billion from the levels enacted in fiscal year 2012.

The bill’s $1.75 billion for rail infrastructure—with $1.45 billion for Amtrak—is a mixed bag for passenger trains.  On one hand, this funding level is $126 million more than the fiscal year 2012 enacted level.  Given the severe scrutiny directed at all discretionary spending, this can be seen as something of a victory.

On the other hand, the Obama Administration had proposed $2.70 billion for passenger trains in their FY 2013 budget request, and Amtrak’s full FY 2013 request totals $2.17 billion.  While a continued surge in revenue from ridership has allowed the company to lower their request for federal operating support to $450 million (less than the $466 million appropriated by Congress in FY 2012), the Senate's FY 2013 budget for Amtrak lowers it still further.  Amtrak's request was based on meeting concrete needs—to expand the national rail fleet and improve aging infrastructure.  Passengers are now left to wonder what maintenance and investment will fall by the wayside.

The bills’ specifics include:

  • $1.45 billion is for Amtrak. Of the total amount provided, not less than $20 million is directed to continue planning work on the trans-Hudson River Gateway tunnel project, which will ease a major choke point on the Northeast Corridor.
  • $100 million is for the High Performance Passenger Rail grant program to assist states with the improvement of existing intercity services, congestion mitigation and multi-state planning initiatives.
  • $2.044 billion for the Federal Transit Administration's "New Starts" program—$89 million above the FY 2012 enacted level.  This program supports new or expanded public transportation services.
  • $500 million for the TIGER grant program to support significant transportation projects in a wide variety of modes, including highways and bridges, public transportation, passenger and freight railroads, and port infrastructure. The funding level included in the bill is equal to the fiscal year 2012 enacted level.

The bill will still have to be approved by the full Senate. [The Senate Appropriations’ website has more.]

The California State Legislature began talks on April 18 to evaluate the most recent business plan from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the first steps to begin the sale of about $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds to begin construction.

“There's obviously a lot of head-banging issues still to be worked out, but I think the commitment on the part of the Democratic caucus is still 100 percent there," a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) told reporters.  Speaker Perez has stated it is important to move quickly on the project to take advantage of extremely low labor and construction costs.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) released a revised business plan that slashed $30 billion from the final price tag—down to about $68 billion—and reducing the project delivery time on the 220 mph train.

However, California’s Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) released a document on April 17 advising state lawmakers to reject the project because it hasn’t identified all the money.  The LAO has a history of taking a stand against infrastructure investment, and in fact came out against California's state-supported Amtrak service—which of course turned out to be immensely popular. 

Proponents of the San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor argue that no infrastructure projects of significant magnitude identifies 100% of the money before the first shovel is in the ground.  Given that California’s population is expected to reach 60 million people by the year 2050, additional transportation capacity will have to be built.

"There is a risk that what we have to do to maintain mobility [if we don’t build the train] will cost more,” said CAHSRA chairman Dan Richard, referring to a tendency of critics of the project to avoid speaking about the $170 billion price tag of building the equivalent amount of transportation capacity in roads, runways, and airports.  “I only ask that we balance those risks.”

It appears that the project’s opponents are mobilizing.  Last month, State Senator Doug LaMalfa (R-Willows) submitted language for a statewide ballot initiative that would put the project to another vote.  LaMalfa believes that Californians won’t repeat their 2008 endorsement of the 220 mph train, and is referring to the bill as the “Stop the $100 Billion Bullet Train to Nowhere Act.”

Political analysts believe LaMalfa’s bill is unlikely to be approved

Image via Wikicommons; Author: reivaxThe Vermont Rail Action Network (VRAN) is reporting that Amtrak’s Vermonter had a 100 percent on time performance in March—an impressive feat that owes much of its success to infrastructure grants from the federal high performance rail program.

The Vermonter was awarded a $50 million grant to implement improvements to track, roadbed, and bridges on a 190-mile segment of the New England Central Railroad.  VRAN congratulated Amtrak and state transportation officials on the consistency shown by the St. Albans, VT– New York–Washington, D.C. service:

“Amtrak's Vermonter was 100% on time in March of 2012… The Ethan Allen did well too, at 85.5% on-time.  Averaged together, Amtrak trains in Vermont were 92.7% on-time.  The 12 month average for the Vermonter is 95.6%, which is pretty darn good.

“When the New England Central Railroad improved dispatching and track and the Vermonter started running on-time ridership started climbing and climbing and was up 30% over three years.  Now that the Vermont Rail System has improved the track of the Ethan Allen [Express], ridership on that train has started climbing as well (up 9.9% in March).  (In Vermont as in most of the country, Amtrak operates as a tenant over tracks that are maintained and dispatched by freight railroads).

“This achievement did not happen by accident.  It reflects the recent investment in track on both routes—and the commitment of both of Vermont's freight railroads, the Agency of Transportation and Amtrak.  And thank you to the conductors and engineers who keep everything moving on-time every day!”

The Wall Street Journal has been at it again, blaming the country’s substandard infrastructure on transit investment in their April 15 editorial, Why Your Highway Has Potholes:

"What's missing is any new thinking. Clear evidence of inefficient transportation spending comes from a new Treasury study estimating that traffic gridlock costs motorists more than $100 billion a year in delays and wasted gas. In cities like Los Angeles, commuters waste the equivalent of two extra weeks every year in traffic jams. This congestion could be alleviated by building more highway lanes where they are most needed and using market-based pricing—such as tolls—for using roads during peak travel times."

We tried to have a little in debunking this over at the NARP blog:

"The Wall Street Journal goes on to place the blame for the failure of the Highway Trust Fund on public transit (you know an editorial board has veered off track when they start citing figures from Wendell Cox and the Heritage Foundation).

"Let that sink in: the problem with the Highway Trust Fund isn’t the fact that Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993, and hasn’t even pegged it to inflation; it’s that it’s spending a portion of the funds on public transit.  It doesn’t take a lot of words to disprove this fallacious argument.  In fact, it only takes two pictures (courtesy U.S. PIRG):"

After that, the piece buckles down to make the economic and statistical case for investment in mass transit.

[Read the complete argument at the NARP blog]

Our argument focused on the unique benefits that transit provides for aging populations.  In a pleasant coincidence, AARP released a video this week describing how transit and Transit Oriented Development enrich the lives of senior citizens.

Amtrak announced yesterday that DJ Stadtler will assume the role of Vice President of Operations.  Starting immediately, he will have oversight over Amtrak’s transportation, engineering and mechanical departments. This includes train crews, locomotives and other train equipment, stations, food and beverage, and the Amtrak-owned infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor and elsewhere.

The job is already familiar to Stadtler, who has served as the acting vice president of operations since December 2011.  He is familiar with Amtrak, having previously served as the chief financial officer at the railroad.  Prior to joining the company, he worked for more than 11 years at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"DJ is a superb individual who knows Amtrak inside and out, has the skill and ability to lead Operations, and will bring improved management and focus on meeting the needs of passengers across our national network of service," said Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman in an official statement.