Hotline #773 -- August 24, 2012 [Updated]


[Correction: Everett Stuart is president of the Rhode Island Association of Railroad Passengers; Steven Musen is a Director at Large.]

Northeastern passengers and officials used a public outreach tour hosted by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to voice their support for passenger train service in the state, and voice concern over a proposed alignment that would exclude much of the current route through Connecticut from 220 mph service.

As reported in last week’s Hotline, the FRA has been holding scoping meetings for Amtrak’s $151 billion, 30-year plan to develop the Northeast Corridor (NEC). NARP Council Member and Rhode Island Association of Railroad Passengers director Steve Musen spoke in Providence on August 22, highlighting current capacity chokepoints along the NEC.

“The top priority for the corridor is additional tunnels under the Hudson, along with the North Portal Bridge and the rail link between North and South Stations in Boston,” said Musen.  “There is also a need for more regional service between Boston and New York, which would give Kingston and Westerly more frequencies, and a need to study having an Amtrak Station Stop at Hillsgrove, which would better serve the Warwick/Airport Commuter Rail Station.”

That sentiment was echoed by leaders in other states, who seemed more focused on near-term expansion of capacity and frequency than a high-speed service still decades away.

"There is nothing speculative about Metro-North,” said Connecticut State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton).  “The reasoning is not 'build it, and they will come.' Instead, it's 'get on with it already, because they are here—and if you don't, they just might not stay.' "

That didn’t keep some from fretting about exclusion from the proposed 220 mph service, which would leave the current route along Connecticut’s shoreline.  Amtrak is looking at a more direct route between New York City and Boston, with only three stops in Connecticut (Danbury, Waterford, and Hartford).

While the current shoreline route would, in fact, receive upgrades to existing Amtrak service—with higher speeds and more frequencies—many Connecticut passengers expressed concern about the exclusion cities like Stamford, Bridgeport, and New London from the 220 mph service.  As the Hartford Courant pointed out, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy felt the public outreach session ranked high enough to take a break from his primary night duties to stop in and speak up for passenger train service.

"Here in Connecticut, access to rail has been critical and essential to our growth," the Governor told FRA officials, arguing for continued investment in Connecticut’s passenger rail infrastructure.

Next up, the FRA will look at the development of initial alternatives and ridership forecasts, and wrap a preliminary environmental impact statement and draft service development plan in 2014.  The scoping process is scheduled to be finalized in 2015.

 

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) may lose out on a much needed infusion of funds after a New York state court ruled the underlying payroll tax violated the state’s constitution.

The New York State legislature passed the payroll levy to help cover a $1.8 billion deficit faced by the MTA, which carries an average of 8.7 million riders every weekday.  The levy required employers to set aside as much as 34 cents for every $100 in payroll taxes, and was expected to produce $1.26 billion in funding for the system.

However, Judge R. Bruce Cozzens Jr. ruled in favor of county executives in suburbs served by MTA, who filed a suit against the law.  Judge Cozzens ruled that the levy violated a home-rule provision in the state constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature (the law passed by 60 percent in the Assembly, and 52 percent in the Senate). 

“Removing more than $1.2 billion in revenue from the Payroll Mobility Tax, plus hundreds of millions of dollars more from other taxes affected by yesterday’s ruling, would be catastrophic for the MTA and for the economy of New York state,” warned a statement released by the MTA.  If the ruling stands, the Authority may be “forced to implement a combination of extreme service cuts and fare hikes.”

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, one of the executives named in the suit, called the ruling a victory for taxpayers.  Mangano has stated the MTA should close the deficit through “efficiencies and cost-cuttings” before it seeks additional funds, either through additional taxes or increased fares.

“We will vigorously appeal today’s ruling,” Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman, told Bloomberg News. “We believe this opinion will be overturned, since four prior challenges to the constitutionality of the law making the same argument have been dismissed.”


The White House announced August 20 that it would expedite the permitting and review process for four transportation projects across the U.S.—including two passenger rail projects—in order to hasten construction on the key infrastructure components.

“Across the country our investments in infrastructure are putting people back to work building and modernizing our transit systems, railroads, bridges and highways,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "The Administration is committed to doing its part to help communities across the country move forward with these critical projects as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

The move is part of the White House’s We Can’t Wait initiative, which recognizes the value of transportation investment in fostering economic growth and providing a world-class infrastructure to allow American businesses to remain globally competitive.

The press release provides profiles for the two passenger rail projects—one of which will preserve Empire Builder service along the current route through North Dakota, the other part of the development of high-performance rail in the Pacific Northwest.  The White House also included a rationale for why the projects were well suited to be expedited.

Devils Lake, North Dakota: The Devils Lake Rail Improvements project will raise the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail line to address the rising level of Devils Lake and ensure the line remains open to passenger and freight traffic.  The Project, which received a $10 million TIGER III (2011) grant for phased infrastructure improvements as part of an overall $100 million program, will allow Amtrak’s operating speeds to increase, improve long-term reliability and lower maintenance costs for both passenger and freight rail. The rail line connects rural communities in North Dakota, Montana, and eastern Washington to larger urban centers with essential services in an area where extreme weather conditions frequently close roads and airports. The project is an example of recovery efforts in the Devils Lake area and involves extensive coordination between the North Dakota Department of Transportation, BNSF, US Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure timely permitting and environmental approval processes.  Through careful engineering and planning, the rail improvements will be constructed with little to no environmental impact, and all work will be completed within existing BNSF right-of-way. 

Point Defiance Bypass, Washington State: The $89 million Point Defiance Bypass Project is part of the larger Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor (PNWRC). The purpose of the Point Defiance Bypass Project is to provide more frequent and reliable high-speed intercity passenger rail service between Seattle and Tacoma to points south. The project will reroute passenger trains to an existing rail line along the west side of I-5 through south Tacoma, Lakewood, and DuPont. Passenger trains, including Amtrak Cascades, currently must slow down due to curves and single-track tunnels on the BNSF Railway main line tracks near Point Defiance and along southern Puget Sound. This project, with extensive regional benefits, is key to providing more competitive intercity passenger rail service between Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. This project is the result of intensive public and stakeholder involvement, so that any community concerns can be identified and resolved ahead of time to avoid later delays. Outreach to the community and other agencies has been rigorous and is ongoing. In an effort to reduce the overall environmental impacts of the Project, the preliminary design calls for the use of an existing transportation corridor and associated infrastructure, rather than the creation of a new corridor, allowing for the use of an Environmental Assessment instead of a possible Environmental Impact Statement, potentially saving multiple months of environmental review.

 

Portland, Oregon’s TriMet announced this week that its Westside Express Service set a new record high for ridership by topping 1,700 trips in a single day, marking 29 months of month-on-month growth since the service launched in February of 2009.

That daily figure is a 9.3 percent increase over the previous July.  Overall, weekly ridership in the month of July had also jumped by 9.3 compared to the same period last year. 

The line is one of the most recent additions to Portland’s rail network, in a city that has made a name for itself in recent decades as a leader in transit.


China’s Xinhua news agency is reporting that a low-speed collision between two passenger trains injured at least 24 people yesterday evening in a station in northeastern China.

The official press agency for the state reported that the collision happened in Jiamusi railway station in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.  Xinhua is reporting that the crash took place as passengers were embarking from a fully stopped train.  Initial reports indicate none of the injuries are serious. 

Heilongjiang is served by a both conventional passenger rail service and higher-performance rail (featuring top speeds of 125mph to 155 mph), the latter a recent introduction as part of the state’s national efforts to improve China’s transportation infrastructure.  It is not clear which service was involved in the accident.


Travelers Advisory:

A grain elevator fire in Charlotte, Michigan delayed Amtrak’s Blue Water on August 23, while firefighters responded to the blaze.

The westbound Chicago–Port Huron train was delayed west of East Lansing by the fire. 

“This will be a lengthy delay, but it’s out of our hands,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari

Amtrak provided charter buses to get passengers to their final destination.


Amtrak’s eastbound California Zephyr was delayed in McCook, Nebraska on the morning of August 19 after striking a herd of 40 to 50 cattle that had strayed onto the tracks.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told local reporters that the train was delayed for a little over five hours at the scene of the strike, and an additional two and a half hours in Hastings to allow for a crew changeover.  A westbound Zephyr was delayed for around two hours.

No passengers or crew were injured in the accident.