Hotline #792 -- January 4, 2013

 

Following its failure to act on a $60.2 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package last week, the House passed a bill that will temporarily grant $9.7 billion in additional borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program.  The Senate quickly voted to approve it, sending the legislation to the President’s desk.

The House Majority—particularly House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)—has been the subject of vicious criticism all week for failing to act on the Senate-passed bill with Northeastern Republicans and Democrats alike savaging the move to kill the aid package.

“What I watched last night was disappointing and disgusting,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) inTrentonon January 2. “We have been waiting six times longer than the victims of Katrina, and there’s no end in sight.New Jerseyand New Yorkers are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. We deserve better.”

"There's only one group to blame: the House majority, and their Speaker, John Boehner,” added Christie.

He was joined by Representative Peter King (R-NY), who labeled Speaker Boehner’s decision to let the 112th Congress end without a House vote on the disaster relief package a “disgrace” and “immoral.”

The Senate-led relief package included $336 million to compensate Amtrak for repair costs and lost revenue resulting from Hurricane Sandy.  $276 million of this would go towards property damage, to support improvements necessary to protect tunnels intoManhattanagainst future flooding, and to increase passenger train capacity intoNew York City.  The remaining $60 million would cover estimated operating losses incurred as a result of the storm.  The bill also included more than $10.8 billion for transit systems hit hard by the storm, including funds to helpNew York’s subway system and the New Jersey Transit commuter rail system.

Responding to pressure from Northeastern lawmakers of both parties, Boehner has scheduled two House floor votes for January 15: a $17.3 billion bill targeted at short-term needs, and a $33 billion bill targeted at long-term needs.

 

Congress temporarily restored parity between mass transit and parking pretax benefits as part of the “fiscal cliff” law enacted this week.

The specific benefit provision in the American Taxpayer Relief Act (H.R. 8) restores parity through January 1, 2014, and is retroactive to January 1, 2012. 

Employers have been allowed to withhold $240 per month in pretax funds from employee’s pay to reduce the cost of parking (automatically raised from $230 per month in 2011).  A similar provision for $230 in mass transit commuting costs had existed in 2011 and prior, sustained via a series of short-term extensions.  However, the mass transit amount was chopped in half on January 1, 2012, after Congress failed to take action on a raft of year-end tax provisions.

American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President and CEO Michael Melaniphy issued a statement praising the move to restore balance:

“On behalf of the millions of Americans who ride public transportation, I commend Congress for passing legislation to increase the public transit commuter benefit, and making it equal to the parking benefit. With parity between public transit and parking benefits, people have the ability to make the best reasonable transportation choice. For 2013, there is no longer a financial bias in the federal tax code against public transit use. This has always been an issue of fairness, and public transit advocates are pleased that the federal tax code will again provide transit riders with the same tax benefits accorded to those who drive to work. 

APTA has been joined by countless other smart transportation groups in calling on Congress to permanently match the transit commuter tax benefit with the parking benefit.

 

The American Taxpayer Relief Act also included an infrastructure investment tax credit for short line railroads, extending retroactively from January 1, 2012 through December 31, 2013.

The bill extends the railroad maintenance credit that provides “Class II and Class III railroads (generally, short-line and regional railroads) with a tax credit equal to 50 percent of gross expenditures for maintaining railroad tracks that they own or lease.”

In an August 2011 analysis of infrastructure investment issues, OneRail (of which NARP is a member) wrote this in support of the railroad track maintenance credit: 

Federal policy encouraged the creation of short line railroads as a way to continue service to customers on lines that the larger railroads were no longer able to serve, thus preserving jobs and economic development opportunities in lower density areas. In the coming years, these railroads must maintain and upgrade their infrastructure to efficiently handle the new generation of heavier rail cars needed by their customers. In 2005, Congress enacted the Section 45G Railroad Track Maintenance tax credit to incentivize these small, local, entrepreneurial businesses to increase their private investment into this freight rail infrastructure. The policy has been a success for railroad shippers and the nation’s transportation system, and the credit must be continued to build on this success.

 

Amtrak President & CEO Joseph Boardman indicated that the company will request changes to Federal Railroad Administration safety standards to allow for lighter-weight passenger rail equipment for its high-speed corridors.

Currently, FRA safety regulations focus on crash survivability, calling for heavier, more rigid railcars to better protect passengers in crashes.  Amtrak is calling for the FRA to bringU.S.regulations more inline with those seen on European and Asian systems, with focus on crash-avoidance systems.

“[Relaxing structure-weight requirements for railcars] would allow for less use of fuel, quicker acceleration, a different performance profile,” Boardman said in an interview. “What we’re really looking for is a performance specification here.”

In the past, the FRA has emphasized that since, unlike in high-speed rail networks in Europe andAsia, Amtrak shares corridors with freight trains, this extra protection is needed.  The FRA is reexamining its safety regulations to accommodate the introduction of high-speed rail operations in the U.S., however, and is looking to Amtrak—and stakeholders like NARP—to provide input on updated regulations.

Amtrak has stated it will need 10 to 12 new trainsets, and estimated it could cost somewhere between $30 million to $40 million each, depending on the nationwide demand.

"It depends on how many we actually would purchase and whether anybody else in this country is going to move forward with high speed trainsets."

Given the economies of scale, moving closer to international standards could benefitU.S.train operators, allowing them access to more “off-the-shelf” equipment that has previously been insufficiently heavy to meet FRA requirements.  Indeed, it would be hard to find a manufacturer interested in bidding on a contract for a small number of high-speed train-sets that must conform to FRA standards that are unique in the world marketplace. 

 

North Carolina Governor-elect Pat McCrory appointed Tony Tata to head the Department of Transportation.

Tata previously served as superintendent of Wake County Schools for two years.  The Charlotte Observer has more.

 

Local leaders from the San Joaquin region are looking to form a joint power authority to take over operations of the popular San Joaquin service from the state of California.

Five local agencies, including the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission and the Sacramento Regional Transit District, are looking to form a joint power authority to provide more local input into the train’s operations.

Amtrak California's San Joaquin service saw both ridership and revenue rise in Fiscal Year 2012.  Six daily trains run between Bakersfield and the Bay Area and Sacramento, carrying 1.1 million passengers in fiscal year 2012 and earning around $38.7 million ($3 million more than 2011, an 8.3 percent increase).

But locals say that more can be done, and are looking to drastically increase frequencies and service.

"Is it efficient as it is now, and are there things that can be done that this governing body can correct that would increase ridership, increase revenue, or at least make it a more efficient operation?” asked Thomas Reeves, manager of public affairs of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, told Capital Public Radio. “We are using the Capitol Corridor as a model because what we saw there is they did a lot to increase ridership especially adding trains to the schedule.”

The Capitol Corridor is one of the great passenger rail success stories of the past 20 years, with ridership going from 239,000 in 1997, the first full year of operation, to 1.71 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year—a 600% increase.  That’s enough to make it the third-busiest route in the Amtrak network.  At the heart of its success has been service expansion, going from eight weekday trains in 1991 to the current 32 weekday and 22 weekend trains.  The Capitol Corridor generates about $170 million a year in economic activity for the region. 

The five agencies need at least one more agency to sign on, a goal they expect to easily achieve in advance of a planned meeting in March of this year.

 

Amtrak announced January 3 it has filled two more senior operations positions, naming Dr. Magdy El-Sibaie as the new chief safety officer and Robin McDonough as chief of business operations.

Dr. El-Sibaie holds both a PhD in engineering mechanics and a Master’s degree in civil engineering from theUniversity ofDelaware, and has over 20 years of railroad transportation engineering experience.  Currently, he serves as an associate administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.  He will begin work for Amtrak on January 7, where he will be responsible for “planning, directing and overseeing the safety activities and standards of Amtrak departments to achieve continuous improvement in employee and passenger safety.”  Dr. El-Sibaie will also ensure Amtrak's compliance with state and federal safety regulations.

McDonough has served with Amtrak since 1981, holding a number of senior positions.  She will be responsible for “collecting and analyzing operations performance metrics, performance improvement planning, budgeting and administration, and operations technology oversight to ensure integration across the new Operations business lines.”

 

Railway Age named James Young, Chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, as its 2013 Railroader of the Year.

“As Jim Young so aptly puts it, ‘Union Pacific has evolved from the company that built America by building the first transcontinental railroad to one that today is critical to the global supply chain,’” said Railway Age editor-in-chief William C. Vantuono.

Union Pacific, which will soon celebrate its 150th anniversary, saw record full-year earnings in 2010 and 2011.  The company, originally established when Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, is also looking ahead to a successful future, setting consecutive records for capital investment levels in 2010, 2011, and 2012.”

“I am honored to accept the railroader of the year award on behalf of all Union Pacific employees,” Young said. “Very few companies have achieved 150 years in business, and the best part about it for Union Pacific is despite all our incredible accomplishments during the past century and a half, we think our best years are still ahead of us.”

Young is the sixth recipient of the award to work for Union Pacific.  You can find a full list of past recipients here.

 

Amtrak Guest Rewards launched its new Select Executive tier status for members on January 1, available for members who earn 20,000 or more Tier Qualifying Points in a calendar year.

Features of the new membership tier include: Select Executive welcome kit, including a new member card, four one-class upgrade coupons and two complimentary companion fare coupons; Select Executive earned upgrades; unlimited access to ClubAcela, Amtrak Metropolitan LoungeSM, First class lounges and United Club locations; unlimited buy and share points; no annual transfer points limits; auto-registration for promotions; and exclusive Select Executive priority customer service phone number.

“Select Executive is an evolution of the Amtrak Guest Rewards program for our most frequent Amtrak travelers,” said Michael Blakey, Senior Director of Loyalty & Customer Relationship Management at Amtrak. “We created Select Executive for members who travel significantly more than most and deserve our highest level of recognition.”

Amtrak Guest Rewards members earn two points for every $1 spent on Amtrak travel.  Joining, renewing, and donating to NARP is another great way to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points.

Additionally, NARP is offering a Member-Get-A-Member Drawing: if you are not a NARP member, but become one by April 8, 2013, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a grand prize of 120,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points—enough for a free cross-country round-trip in a Bedroom, two cross-country round-trips in a Roomette, four Acela Express First Class round-trips, or many free coach trips! If you are already a NARP member, every new member you bring in will get you one entry for the drawing.  Read all the details here.

 

Amtrak has issued the 2013 edition of its popular calendar, featuring Raleigh and North Carolinian trains.

North Carolina’s locomotive 1797, “City of Asheville,” and Amtrak locomotive 120 are all pictured, with Raleighas the backdrop—a tribute to the steadily-expanding partnership between Amtrak and the state government, which helps fund operations of the successful Carolinian and the Piedmont.

The calendar can be featured at the Amtrak Store, and is available in both a wall size ($10) and a desk size ($5).