Hotline #765 -- June 29, 2012

The compromise, two-year Surface Transportation Bill passed Congress today, implementing a highway-focused surface transportation policy through until the end of September 2014.

The House led the way, passing the conference agreement by a 373-52 vote, with the Senate following suit minutes later with a 74-19 vote.  All of the “nay” votes were cast by Republicans in both chambers.

Train advocates were working for a truly multi-modal transportation bill, but partisan gridlock resulted in yet another highway bill that focuses heavily on roads, automobiles, and trucks.  Congress failed even to address lagging revenues flowing into the Highway Trust Fund—the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993—and instead chose to subsidize highway construction by almost $17 billion over the next two years.

The only good news for passenger trains comes in the elimination of a provision that would’ve eliminated 75 percent of the Alaska Railroad Corporation’s funding, and $6 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding for the popular Amtrak Downeaster train.

You can read a full explanation of the bill in yesterday’s NARP blog post.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Politico that called the environmental streamlining—at enabling highway projects to get more quickly from planning to reality provision—  “problematic…There are things we could do to make it performance based—to speed it up, to make it less expensive but still maintain the integrity of what we’re trying to achieve.”  He said project delays sometimes happen “because people didn’t follow the process.”  Others have suggested that project delays come less as a result of environmental laws and more because projects lack adequate funding, public support or both.

Politico also reported, “Reconnecting America President John Robert Smith said ‘much of the transformation and vision has been lost’ when comparing the final deal with what the Senate passed.  He pointed foremost to a decrease in local control over transportation projects.”

 

This week also saw action on the Fiscal Year 2013 Transportation, Housing & Urban Development (THUD) bill, where two anti-Amtrak amendments were eventually withdrawn.

An amendment offered by Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX) that would’ve directly shut down Amtrak’s long-distance trains, ending passenger train service in 27 of the lower 48 states and threatening the entire network, was withdrawn. 

An amendment from Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) that would’ve prohibited use of appropriated funds on food and beverage service likewise was withdrawn.

However, Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) offered an amendment stipulating that none of the funds made available by the appropriations bill would be available for California’s high-speed rail project, which passed by a vote of 239-185 (almost entirely along party lines).  While the bill was largely symbolic, since no funds in the bill were targeted at high-speed rail, it sends a clear message of the House GOP’s political opposition to the project.

Representative John Olver (D-MA) did rise in opposition to the amendment, calling it both unnecessary and a misreading of the value of project’s planning.

“There are people who [ask] ‘well, why are we building this in the Central Valley of California?’” said Representative Olver.   “When we started to build the interstate highway system, we didn't start in the center of the cities, which would have been very complicated. We started in building those legs of the interstate highway system where it was easy to build them. And that is possible.”  [Incidentally, President Eisenhower was said to be shocked when he saw Interstate construction in the heart of a city.]

Thank you to everyone whose work the past few days—and over many months and years—has helped create an environment hostile to amendments that target Amtrak!  But the Denham amendment shows how much more work lies ahead.


In other California high-speed rail news, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson joined three other Californian mayors in supporting the project.  The quartet took out an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle outlining the train’s benefits:

“People in our cities need jobs. We know that we, as a state and country, need to invest in our infrastructure, both for near-term economic benefits and the long-term quality of life.”

“The cities can’t wait any longer,” Mayor Johnson added. “This is job creation, it's economic development, and transportation—(it) has been really, really critical in that.”

Mayor Johnson’s endorsement came just a week after the CEOs of Webcor Builders and Virgin America—Andy Ball and David Cust, respectively—came out in support of the project in the San Jose Mercury.  Both companies are members of Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and they argued that California can't afford not to build high-speed rail:

The big obstacle -- and it is a legitimate one -- is the state's economic outlook. How can we undertake a project like this in the current economy? As the country experienced during the Great Depression, real investment in infrastructure helped put people back to work and built a lasting foundation for the economy to grow on. High-speed rail is a tangible project that will spur job growth, improve the lives of millions of Californians and help create a transport infrastructure for the state that supports the 21st century economy.

Starting the high-speed rail project will also generate jobs and material sales, which in turn result in more income and sales tax revenues flowing to the state during construction to improve the near-term budget situation. Delaying or canceling high-speed rail would make the budget situation worse, not better, even without taking into account the cost of alternative transportation like highway and airport expansion -- or the cost of inaction such as increased traffic, lost productivity and the environmental impacts of the current system.

Plan B a “Non-Starter”

These endorsements come at an crucial moment, with State Senators deliberating on whether to ok $2.7 billion in bonds to help fund the first segment of the project.  Rumors have leaked to the press that some State Senators are pushing a “Plan B,” which would shift spending from high-speed infrastructure in the Central Valley to enhancements of conventional infrastructure in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

So far, no noted proponent of the 220 mph San Francisco-Los Angeles train has endorsed “Plan B,” and it’s doubtful that the project could be so drastically reset at this point without endangering federal grants.

"The Plan B being floated would build a mere 28 miles of new track designated for high-speed rail, creating an orphan section of track in the Central Valley, killing all momentum toward building a true high-speed rail system,” said Daniel Krause, executive director of Californians For High Speed Rail.  “The current plan will build up to 130 miles of track, solidifying California's commitment to true high-speed rail. It's time to end the games and move forward on Governor Brown and the Authority's plan to make high-speed rail a reality.”



The City of Lincoln, Nebraska unveiled a brand new Amtrak station yesterday, a modern facility that will replace an 89 year-old former Burlington Route station, and better serve passengers on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

The 3,000 square-foot station is built in a traditional style, with a vaulted translucent glass and steel skylight positioned above the central waiting area—a nod to the city’s rich rail history.  The station also provides passengers with modern amenities, and is in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We fully expect that such faster, reliable, more frequent train service will one day soon come to our station, and when it does, we’re ready,” Mayor Chris Beutler said at the ribbon-cutting press conference. “The new station can accommodate future growth needs for Amtrak and Lincoln, and can facilitate expanded numbers of passengers, multiple lines, faster trains, even regional and commuter service. All of this means significant, multi-million dollar opportunity realized over a long period of time.”

The West Haymarket Joint Public Agency came up with the $1.3 million in funding for the facility, as part of a larger redevelopment and revitalization effort.  You can find out more HaymarketNOW.com.


In the wake of the Canadian government’s March decision to cut $41 million (Canadian) in VIA Rail’s funding over the next three years, VIA Rail has confirmed a sweeping series of service reductions on its national network.  As a result, VIA's unionized workforce is expected to be reduced by some 200 full-time positions (a reduction of around 9 percent).

Rumors of the service reductions have been circulating for weeks—NARP reported on them in Hotline #761, which details specific changes to service—but VIA Rail didn’t confirm the cuts in service until June 27 (referring to them as “adjustments”).

"Where the demand varies dramatically by season, we need to adjust frequencies in order to remain efficient," VIA President & CEO Marc Laliberté said of the service reductions in a press release. "In growing markets, we are adding more frequencies to meet customer demand. In addition, mandatory services in regions where there are limited transportation alternatives will remain. We are not eliminating rail service on any routes where we operate today and we are maintaining the flexibility to adjust service levels in the future, as customer needs evolve."      

The response has been overwhelmingly negative from transportation advocates, who warn that reducing access to these regions will have a negative economic impact that will be felt beyond the transportation sector.

"At a time when the whole world is investing in passenger rail service, this is completely the wrong thing to do, it makes absolutely no sense," Ottawa-based Transport Action’s President David Jeanes told the Montreal Gazette.  "These cuts are going to have a very severe impact on tourism.”

VIA Rail has pointed to declining demand as the reason for the service reductions.  But some advocates are arguing that pinning the cuts on reduced demand is a deflection from the main culprit: government austerity measures.  Transportation Action Canada’s Hotline has more:

"These cuts were to have been announced on May 28 at VIA's Annual Public Meeting in Winnipeg, but rumours of cuts were leaked and they sparked a public reaction so the government decided to postpone any announcement until after the current parliamentary session ends in late June to minimize criticism from opposition MPs and holiday focused citizens.

"Rumoured cuts include reduction of service in the off-season on the Toronto-Vancouver transcontinental Canadian [NARP: from tri-weekly to twice-weekly] and on routes through Kitchener and to Niagara Falls in southwestern Ontario. But the biggest cut of all will be a 50% reduction in service on our Maritimes only remaining train, the “Ocean” from 6 to 3 days per week [year-round].

"Politically speaking, the goal of the federal government seems to be to let VIA take public criticism for the cuts, while avoiding discussion of the root cause which is a gradually reduced VIA budget over the next 3 years, 2012 to 2015," [argued a] handout used at the Bill C-38 protest at the Halifax Grand Parade this week.

 

Amtrak announced this week that Jason D. Molfetas will be joining the company as Chief Information Officer (CIO) to lead the company’s information technology (IT) team.

“Jason has considerable expertise in the IT field and possesses the leadership skills needed to build the partnerships and the new technology systems to advance Amtrak into our bright future,” said President and CEO Joseph Boardman.

Molfetas has more than 28 years of experience in the IT sector, serving most recently as senior vice president and CIO for Recall, an international corporation involved in information management and logistics.  He will bring his experience to bear on enhancing Amtrak’s customer service systems and business operations.


The U.S. High Speed Rail Association announced a high-speed rail-themed contest, offering participants a chance to win a free trip for two to Europe.

By donating $5 online, contestants are entered to win a free trip for two to Europe valued at $7,200.  Donations will go to support USHSR’s new TV series— High Speed Rail Around the World—set to begin filming this summer in Europe.  The trip includes:

  • Two (2) round-trip coach-class airplane tickets (winner and their guest).
  • Three (3) nights hotel accommodations in London.
  • A day trip to Oxford, England on Virgin Rail.
  • A day tour of London.
  • Two (2) Tickets for a West End play.
  • Two (2) London Pass cards for free entry to numerous destinations.
  • Five Hundred ($500) U.S. Dollars spending money in London.
  • Two round trip tickets on Eurostar high speed train from London to Paris.
  • Three (3) nights hotel accommodations in Paris, France.
  • Two (2) Paris Pass cards for free entry to numerous destinations.
  • A day tour of Paris.
  • Dinner for two (2) at Jules Vern restaurant on the Eiffel Tower.
  • Five Hundred ($500) U.S. Dollars spending money costs in Paris.
  • 2 train tickets from London to Heathrow International Airport for return flight to the United States

Find out more out HSR Promotions.