Hotline #759 -- May 18, 2012

Dozens of cities and towns across the country held well-attended National Train Day festivities on Saturday, and NARP was excited to have been part of over 20.

You can see some photos of these events here (and if you have photos you would like to add, send them to narp[at]narprail.org).

NARP gathered a sample of the many stories that appeared about the scores of celebrations across the U.S.:

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo had a guest appearance on U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’sFastlane blog to commemorate National Train Day

We don't usually post a blog on the weekend, but today is National Train Day, commemorating the May 1869 driving of the golden spike that completed the nation's first transcontinental railroad. To mark this special occasion, let's hear what Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said at a National Train Day celebration earlier today in Chicago.

USA Today takes a look at some of America’s great train stations in “10 great places to celebrate National Train Day”:

Rail fans across the country will celebrate National Train Day with exhibits and activities at train depots across the country. But stations are worth visiting year round says Ed Breslin , a co-author of America's Great Railroad Stations (Viking Studio, $40), which features photos by Roger Strauss III. "They were the front porch to every town. They showed American craftsmanship and feel for architecture." He shares some favorites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

[Check the NARP blog for more coverage]


May’s NARP News is now available for members.  This issue’s stories include:

  • US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood addresses NARP's Capitol Hill Reception, saying NARP and our allies deserves a lot of credit for the continued progress of passenger rail in the USA.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board echoes NARP's concern about the way US railroads are implementing Positive Train Control collision-prevention technology, including that it won't prevent restricted-speed, rear-end collisions
  • We are watching closely as the surface transportation authorization bills passed by both chambers of Congress go to a conference committee
  • Elected officials and citizens are working hard to save the current route of Amtrak's Southwest Chief through western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico. 

Don’t have access?  NARP’s annual dues are only $35, and it comes with a 10% discount on most Amtrak travel!


The leader of the California Senate on May 16 called on the White House to publicly commit to working for additional federal funds for the state’s high-speed rail project should President Barack Obama win in November.

Associated Press reported that “the request came as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushes skeptical state lawmakers to approve $2.7 billion in initial spending by July 1 to meet a federal construction deadline.  The federal government has pledged $3.5 billion, on top of the $9 billion authorized by California voters.”

Steinberg’s comments come in the wake of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s May 10 warning to Californian lawmakers not to delay a vote on the issuance of bonds to pay for high-speed rail.

“We need to make sure that the commitment is there to obligate the money,’ LaHood told reporters at the Capitol.  “We want to make sure that our partners here understand what's at stake… We can't wait until the end of summer."

As public officials seek better leverage to direct the course of the project, it’s worth remembering that many great projects would never have been built if they had been put on hold until all the needed, multi-year funding was assured.  See, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle’s excellent, Sunday May 13 front-page column on why the Golden Gate Bridge almost didn’t get built:

Critics depicted the bridge as financially unsound, legally dubious, an aesthetic blight and an engineering hazard in the decade before the start of construction in 1933. The battle was most fierce in the fall of 1930, when voters in six counties were asked to allow $35 million in bond sales for construction.

The committee findings soon became fodder for a newspaper advertisement that began "MR. TAXPAYER: This Ad is published to save you money - READ IT." After all, they echoed what opponents had been saying all along: Things were moving too fast. There were too many unanswered questions. The numbers couldn't be trusted.

The ad was one of many placed by the Taxpayers' Committee Against Golden Gate Bridge Bonds. With a membership list that included future Mayor Roger Lapham and City Engineer M.M. O'Shaughnessy, this was no mere collection of gadflies. Such opponents insisted they weren't against the idea of a bridge, simply the reality of this one. 

If political leaders can successfully navigate the criticism, California’s high-speed rail project can be the same kind of economic—and cultural—game-changer that the Golden Gate Bridge was in the 1900s.


Work has wrapped up on new train station platforms in Brunswick and Freeport, which will allow Amtrak’s Downeaster line to begin serving both come November.  

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo was joined by Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt and local business leaders on May 14 to celebrate the project’s completion.

“The Downeaster expansion is creating jobs and spurring local economic development even before the trains arrive,” said Administrator Szabo.  “The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority delivered this project on time and on budget, and when the line opens in the fall it will increase tourism and mobility choices for residents from Boston to Brunswick.”

The FRA head wrote about the economic benefits of the investment on the U.S. DOT’s Fastlane blog:

This extension will also increase tourism and mobility choices for residents from Boston to Brunswick.

In addition, Maine is proving that the benefits of passenger rail development go beyond state lines.  According to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the work along the Downeaster corridor is creating business orders and sustaining and creating jobs at 53 companies in 20 different states.

Brunswick has proved that even before you start passenger train service, the commitment to start service will produce new growth, new businesses and new jobs.  By 2030, Brunswick’s transit-oriented development is projected to include more than $325 million in new construction investment, more than 800 jobs, and more than $7 million in saved transportation costs. 

And for Freeport, reclaiming a connection to passenger rail is also a big win. Freeport’s transit-oriented development by 2030 is projected to include more than $120 million in new construction investment, 300 jobs, and more than $2 million in saved transportation costs.


Congressman Randy Hultgren (R-IL) sent a Dear Colleague letter calling for transportation benefit parity to each member of the conference committee that is negotiating passage of the surface transportation bill.

The letter draws attention to the short shrift transit commuters have received since January.  The expiration of a provision of tax law has seen employer-provided commuter benefits slashed for passengers, while benefits for auto commuters actually rose.

Through 2011, the law allowed employers to give tax-free commuter benefits to their employees up to $230 a month, same as for parking.  This changed on January 1, 2012 when the transit benefits limit fell to $125 even as the parking benefits limit rose to $240.

Hultgren’s letter included this:

Many Members of Congress, including 35 co-signers of the attached letter to the House Rules and Ways and Means Committee, would like to see parity restored between transit and parking commuter benefits. We want to remove this disincentive for commuters who choose to take public transportation, including buses, trains, and vanpooling. 

Conferees are expected to finish their work in the next few weeks.



On Saturday, May 26, the Maine Eastern Railroad will launch its summer passenger excursion service.  

The excursion railroad made the announcement today:

The company, which is owned by the Morristown & Erie Railway in New Jersey, is a full time, year-round freight rail operation that runs on the state-owned Rockland branch of the former Maine Central Railroad.            

The 57-mile short line railroad has become a popular attraction for out-of-state tourists and dedicated rail fans, as well as for Maine residents who enjoy the colorful character of the restored, full-sized, standard gauge vintage equipment, some of which is more than 60 years old. 

Connecting Brunswick and Rockland with stops at Bath and Wiscasset, the train traverses four counties and a dozen individual towns and cities along the Maine coast. Round trip service will begin May 26, when the Alewives Special will make a special stop in both directions at Damariscotta Mills to deliver passengers to the annual Fish Ladder Restoration Festival during the Memorial Day weekend. And like last year, the railroad will make special stops in Newcastle for three annual events: the Damariscotta Pirate Rendezvous on June 23; then the Pemaquid Oyster Festival on September 30; and the Great Pumpkin Festival and Regatta on October 6 and 7.

For more information, check out www.maineeasternrailroad.com.

 

The future of GPS directions: "step 1, exit your car"

What if your car’s GPS wasn’t so fixated on your car.  What if it asked: What is the quickest way for a person to get to work and back again?  To minimize the time spent traveling, and free up the maximum amount of time for the parts of their lives that they actually care about?  Timed spent with loved ones, not wheels.

Many analysts predict transportation systems will need to start asking these kinds of questions in the near future to deal with growing congestion and rising fuel prices.  And what’s more, they think the answer the GPS will often give is: leave the car at home.

[See the full entry on the NARP blog]


TRAVELERS' ADVISORY 

  • Chicago commuters will have to deal with disruptions stemming from a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit that’s taking place at McCormick Place on Sunday and Monday, May 20 and 21, 2012.  Passengers should allow extra time to and from the station due to congestion from traffic detours and street closures. There will be no change to Amtrak ticketing and baggage policies.
  • Amtrak Thruway buses 6029/6049 and 6030/6048, which connect southeastern Michigan points with the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited at Toledo, now stop in Jackson, MI - in addition to Detroit, Dearborn, Ann Arbor and East Lansing.