Hotline #787 -- November 30, 2012

President Barack Obama proposed a deficit reduction deal today that would provide an infusion of $50 billion in infrastructure spending in the coming year.  It is part of a broadly outlined budget plan that would include $1.6 trillion in tax increases and $400 billion in entitlement program cuts.

Obama promoted his plan at a speech in Hatfield, Pennsylvania at the Rodon Group Manufacturing Facility.  Without spelling out the specifics of the $50 billion in infrastructure spending, the President doubled down on his tactic pairing decreased spending with increased revenue to protect government investment he argues is essential to economic growth:

“We’re going to have to raise a little more revenue.  We’ve got to cut out spending we don’t need, building on the trillion dollars of spending cuts we’ve already made.  And if we combine those two things, we can create a path where America is paying its bills while still being able to make investments in the things we need to grow like education and infrastructure.”

The business community has, initially at least, responded enthusiastically.  With soaring congestion, a maintenance backlog, and rising freight and passenger demand, U.S. companies are becoming increasingly vocal in calling for government leaders to offer a solution to the nation’s transportation challengers.

“We need $150 billion just to start repairing what we already have,” said Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at an event today held by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Republican leaders have panned the plan for not including enough cuts—both to discretionary spending and to entitlement programs.

“[This plan is] not a serious proposal,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).  “And so, right now, we’re almost nowhere.”

The House leader did indicate that the channels of communication have remained open.

“There are a lot of ideas that have been put on the table,” he told reporters.  “We’ve had conversations, and I’m sure we’ll continue to have conversations.”

There are a number of hurdles remaining in the way to the Obama Administration’s proposal.  What’s more, without specifics, it’s hard to tell how the Obama plan might relate to passenger rail and transit. 

 

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on November 28 to examine Amtrak’s ongoing structural reorganization intended to improve the performance and accountability of the railroad, part of a series held by the committee over the past few months to examine Amtrak and passenger rail. 

Chairman John Mica (R-FL) accused Amtrak of lagging behind other modes in minimizing the public subsidy required to operate.  However, Mica did explicitly acknowledge the necessity of federal spending on Amtrak and passenger rail, seeming to soften some of his rhetoric on privatization of passenger rail in the U.S.

Amtrak’s President Joseph Boardman, meanwhile, came out with a strong defense of the passenger railroad’s performance:

“While there are still plenty of challenges ahead, the basics for success are definitely here, and Amtrak is doing well.  We just set the ninth ridership record in the last ten years, and we posted record ticket revenues, too.  We’ve broken out of the narrow band of 18-20 million riders that our company lived in for decades, and we carried 31.2 million last year.  Better ridership has helped drive an improved financial performance, and if you look at our operating support numbers in terms of constant value, in FY 2013 Amtrak will be getting by with about half as much Federal support as it had in 2004.

Amtrak Inspector General Ted Alves was largely upbeat in his testimony before the committee.

“Overall, Amtrak has generally taken positive action on our recommendations; the company has implemented many of them, and is in the process of addressing others,” said Alves. 

[Read more about the hearing on the NARP blog]

 

Amtrak has responded to calls by the Long Island Rail Road to hasten the reopening of the East River tunnels damaged by flooding brought on by Hurricane Sandy, a critical step in restoring full service into Penn Station.

While Amtrak had originally said it couldn’t guarantee reopening of the tunnels until mid-January, pressure from LIRR and State Representative Steve Israel (D-Huntington) appears to have led to a change of heart.

“We understand the importance of restoring full LIRR service and are committed to doing so by the Christmas holiday,” said Amtrak President & CEO Joseph Boardman. “We appreciate the continued cooperation from LIRR and are diligently working to make the needed repairs.”  There are four tunnels under the East River, and two remain closed.

 

Scores of Pennsylvanian passengers rallied November 19 to maintain Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian train service in the face of threats to its funding.

[Click here for video of the rally]

Organized and led by NARP Council Member Michael Alexander, the rally sought to raise awareness about changes to federal funding which divests the responsibility for funding passenger rail operations on routes under 750 miles to states.  Due to this change in the law, the state of Pennsylvania may have to come up with around $7 million in operating funds for the Pittsburgh to New York train next year. 

Advocates emphasized that the route provides an essential mobility option for numerous communities along the line, including Johnstown and Altoona.  State leaders are warning that if this transportation link is eliminated, the regional economy will take a hit.

“This is the most important thing we can do to keep this community vibrant,” State Representative Bryan Barbin (D-Johnstown) told theTribune Democrat. “It is a way to connect to the rest of the state and connect to the nation… We should be investing in infrastructure.  That’s how you get out of a recession.”

Alexander is trying to engage the sizable population that use the Pennsylvanian—the Johnstown station saw 23,000 people board and disembark in 2011 alone.  And he’s warning that time is running short to build support in the state legislature 

"We need to keep the trains that we have now," Alexander told a crowd of about 50 people Monday at the Johnstown Amtrak station. "It's very hard to turn it around once you've lost all of the service."


A new report issued by the National Resource Defense Council demonstrates that states that prioritize investment in transit and rail are less dependent on gasoline.

The Fighting Oil Dependency report calculates gasoline price vulnerability (the percentage of personal income spent on gasoline by the average driver in each state), and ranks states based on their adoption of smart solutions to reduce oil dependence.  This is the sixth annual edition of NRDC’s analysis, and it highlighted some negative trends:

Oil dependence affects all states, but some states' drivers are hit harder economically than others. Drivers in every state in 2011 spent a higher percentage of their income on gasoline than they did in 2010, and drivers in the most vulnerable states spent more than twice as large a percentage of their income on gasoline as drivers in the least vulnerable states.

Drivers in most states (42) were hit even harder in 2011 than they were during the previous heights of vulnerability in 2008.

However, the report identified a number of effective solutions for state’s looking to reduce the financial burden faced by residents at the gas pump:

Public transit systems, such as bus, commuter rail, subway, and light rail programs, are important components in state efforts to promote smart growth and reduce oil dependence.

By creating or expanding reliable and accessible public transit programs, states can reduce the number of single passenger cars on the road, consequently lowering average driving per person. And accessible public transit provides an important transportation alternative as gas prices rise.

While these findings are less than a revelation—reemphasizing what transit advocates have been pointing to for years—this report should provide important data points in the fight for more and better public transit and trains. 

You can read the full report here.


A rail bridge collapse over Mantua Creek in New Jersey led to the derailment of a Conrail freight train and a chemical spill, exposing residents to vinyl chloride.  Local officials are saying the spill has had only a minor impact on human health and environmental quality.

"Initially there was a release of gas into the air that affected some nearby residents and people working right in that area," New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese told reporters.

Twenty-two people were taken to a local hospital for precautionary care.  Symptoms of exposure include eye irritation and respiratory difficulty.

You can read more at Reuters.

 

Amtrak filled two key positions this week, announcing November 26 that it has named Bruce Pohlot as the railroad’s new Chief Engineer, and Tom Quigley as General Manager of State-Supported Services.

As chief engineer, Pohlot will be responsible for “all construction and maintenance activities for Amtrak-owned right-of-way including track, bridges, buildings, communications, signals and electric traction, plus he directs the Engineering department’s capital program.”

General Manager of State-Supported Services is position created in realignment efforts stemming from the realignment of daily operations to better conform to the Amtrak Strategic Plan.  Quigley will be responsible for “providing Amtrak state partners and their customers with excellent service, while meeting financial goals and other performance targets.”

Both men will report directly to Vice President of Operations D.J. Stadtler, starting in their new positions on December 10, 2012.  For bios, you can check out the announcement on Amtrak.com.

Amtrak’s outgoing chief engineer, Frank Vacca, was hired as the Chief Program Manager for the California High-Speed Rail Authority in October.

Vacca occupied that position in Amtrak since 2006, and has more than 35 years of experience in passenger rail systems.  In his role at CAHSRA, Vacca will lead technical and engineering teams as they focus on delivering the high-speed rail project.

“Frank Vacca is a highly recognized and respected executive in rail and will be a major asset in delivering high-speed rail to California in his new role as the Authority’s Chief Program Manager,” said Jeff Morales, CEO of the Authority.  “Frank’s expertise will help fulfill our ongoing commitment to partner with existing rail systems in building a statewide rail network.”

 

In yet another sign of Virginia’s steadily growing love for passenger trains, Virginia Railway Express sold all 3,600 of its tickets for the annual Santa Train in less than four minutes on November 26.

Around 7,200 tickets were available in total through a few sellers.  In addition to the 3,600 snapped up through VRE’s website, other vendors reported that their allotments of tickets went almost as quickly. 

VRE will be running 11 holiday-themed trains on December 8, with names like Rudolph Express, appearances by Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and Christmas activities for children.  Revenue from the $5 tickets will be donated to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing grade crossing accidents and increasing rail safety awareness.

Virginians who missed out on the Santa Train will still have Amtrak’s new Norfolk service to look forward to.  That train begins December 12.  But don’t look for tickets on the opening day run—that, too, is sold out. 

 

Travelers Advisory

Amtrak announced that beginning Monday, Dec. 3, Philadelphia's 30th Street Station will be the subject of renovations, affecting access to the station from the 30th Street side (the west plaza).

Renovations to the west plaza and parking deck will provide additional parking at the station, enhance security, and improve access and safety for pedestrians and vehicles. 

While station operations will continue as normal during the work, passengers driving to the station are advised to allow extra time due to street detours, vehicle congestion, and limited parking. Amtrak is asking passengers to utilize the garage adjacent to the Cira Centre office tower on the north side of the station.  Those picking up or dropping off passengers can use the 29th Street side of the station.

Work is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2013.