Congress Adjourns for Summer Break With Hearings on Amtrak and High-Speed Rail
July 15, 2016
As both houses of Congress adjourn for an election-year recess, they’ll leave Washington without passing one of the 12 annual appropriations measures. As NARP has been reporting, ancillary partisan battles halted progress on positive, bipartisan transportation appropriations bills that would increase funding for Amtrak, passenger rail, and transit. The Senate had already passed its version, and was simply waiting on the full House to vote before reconciling the bill before sending it to the President’s desk.
The lack of movement on the transportation bill means that it will now have to be included in a short-term budget extension in September, freezing Amtrak funding and leaving exciting new FAST Act rail programs unfunded.
However, budget gridlock didn’t keep some members of Congress from holding hearings on the status of various transportation and rail programs, and NARP was there to track the action.
On July 12, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation held a hearing on the status of the FAST Act, exploring stakeholder perspectives on its implementation. Senators spoke with Amtrak, which again made a strong case on the need
NARP also attended a hearing held yesterday by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform. It was chaired by Rep. John Mica of Florida, who—compared to past hearings he’s held on Amtrak—was relatively subdued in his criticism of President Obama’s passenger rail initiatives.
You can read a full description of the two hearings below:
Intermodal and Interdependent: The FAST Act, the Economy, and Our Nation’s Transportation System
Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security
Hearing Date: July 12, 2016
- Mr. Patrick J. Ottensmeyer, Chief Executive Officer, Kansas City Southern Railway Company
- Major Jay Thompson, Arkansas Highway Police; President, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance
- Mr. David Eggermann, Supply Chain Manager, BASF
- Mr. Stephen J. Gardner, Executive Vice President and Chief of NEC Business Development, Amtrak
In his testimony before the committee, Stephen Gardner summarized Amtrak’s estimated nationwide economic impact of $7.9 Billion, and all time high satisfaction rating from customers earlier this year. However, he also noted the mixed blessing this year of simultaneously growing ridership and diminishing revenue when compared to the previous year.
He indicated that the mandate to isolate Amtrak operations into separate accounts, concerning the NEC’s operational “profits,” is underway for introduction next year. He included brief mention of the Gulf Coast program, as well as the State Route Committee, both as positive developments.
His major plea was one of predictable and dedicated funding, as opposed to the discretionary approach that has been taken since Amtrak’s inception. He lauded many tools within the FAST act, but pointed to this as the major obstacle concerning Amtrak’s future success.
Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) made sure that the need for dedicated funding made it onto the public record many times over during the question period, and made explicit that not having such funding undoubtedly leads to inefficiency and waste when planning multiple year projects as railroads must. It should also be noted that Senator Booker asked an interesting question of Patrick Ottensmeyer, CEO of Kansas City Southern, also testifying at the hearing: after emphasizing the 40 cents from each revenue dollar freight railroads reinvest in their own infrastructure, he asked if Ottensmeyer would consider the Federal Government “a competitor,” with the billions lavished on public infrastructure each year. This shows a glimmer of impressive understanding from Booker about the veiled regulatory imbalance key to the shift in American transportation from rail to asphalt. The CEO backed down from the question, recalling earlier support of expediting permits for railroad infrastructure projects.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked Gardner for “his word” that Amtrak would indeed be separating the NEC from the national network. He then asked for “his word” that Amtrak would not go forth with the “half-baked, hair-brained” plan to route Amtrak through Old Line, Connecticut as is being considered in the yet to be completed NEC Futures plan. Blumenthal emphasized the “strong and meritorious opposition” of such a plan, and that aside from working with the FRA on NEC Futures, Amtrak must listen to “its customers.”
Senator Steve Daines’(R-MT) took time to honor the Empire Builder as the conveyance of his ancestors. He was eager to see if recent projects with the large stations on the East Coast and in Chicago had left any lessons for intermediate stops—especially concerning a future one in Culbertson, Montana. He was adamant about a study that had shown that the addition of this stop would yield net-positive income for the Amtrak network. Gardner responded that they were aware that such an initiative could improve performance and generate capital within the Amtrak system, and indicated support of helping the community in Culbertson to find funding for such a project and work with BNSF railway. (One of his staffers is making a trip to Culbertson in August, and afterwards I indicated that we could help rouse local support should they want it).
Lagging Behind: The State of High Speed Rail in the United States
Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets
Hearing Date: July 14, 2016
- Ms. Sarah Feinberg, Administrator - Federal Railroad Administration - Document
- Mr. Baruch Feigenbaum, Assistant Director, Transportation Policy - Reason Foundation - Document
- Mr. Thomas Hart, Jr., President - Rail Forward - Document
- Mr. Chris Koos, Mayor - Normal, IL - Document
Subcommittee Chair John Mica (R-FL) opened up the hearing, calling himself one of the biggest advocates of passenger rail in Congress, and lamented the gap between the US and the rest of the developed world. He said that, while initially optimistic about President Obama’s plan, he was disappointed that most of the funding went to “snail speed rail,” and that while 99% of the funds were obligated only 51% of the funds had been spent. He also pointed out that, despite President Obama’s stated vision, only four rail lines outside the NEC have segments that allow for speeds above 100 mph.
Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) delivered the opening remarks for the Minority, and defended the High Speed and Intercity Rail Program. Rep. Duckworth argued that the $10 billion has been well spend investing in Amtrak and state-supported services, while pointing out that the elimination of funding for the program since 2010 has slowed progress on introducing true high speed rail.
FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg spoke of the HSIPR programs two parts: improving existing rail lines to increase capacity, speed and frequency of current passenger rail service; and developing new corridors to serve new markets with world-class rail service. She emphasized Thirty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak submitted nearly 500 applications, requesting more than $75 billion worth of projects – far exceeding the $10.1 billion available. The program has supported nearly 150 projects in 35 states and the District of Columbia, nearly 85 percent of which are concentrated in six key corridors. Feinberg noted that despite the Administration’s repeated budget requests for additional funding – a total of $35 billion requested since the last HSIPR appropriation in FY 2010, as well as the establishment of a dedicated funding source – Congress has provided no new substantial amounts of passenger rail development funding.
Mr. Baruch Feigenbaum said that, while the Obama Administration envisioned a national network of high-speed rail service, the administration has no clear policy on high speed rail development and the existing program lacks clearly defined goals. He argued that other countries around the world built rail to relieve crowding on existing conventional rail lines, while several countries built HSR to protect rail’s share of travelers and prevent passengers from switching from rail to another travel mode. Feigenbaum further argued that the number of U.S. passengers taking rail has remained constant, and gains on the Acela and regional trains in the Northeast corridor have offset losses on long-distance service.
Mr. Thomas Hart placed a large amount of the blame on the FRA and the role that was thrust upon them. He said the FRA, as a primarily safety-focused entity, had never worked on these types of project before, and he argued the FRA had neither the experience, the staff, nor the regulations to quickly and effectively implement the grant or appropriation process to develop high-speed rail. Hart accused the FRA of reinventing the wheel when it developed and designed its own lengthy regulatory process rather than relying on foreign models.
Mayor Chris Koos spent his five minutes talking about how Normal was able to revitalize the central business district by investing in its station and improving transit connections. He emphasized frequency and reliability as critical factors for business travelers, and thus a central factor in driving economic benefits.
Rep. Mica and Administrator Feinbgerg went back and forth on why project delivery has lagged. Feinberg pointed out that a lot of the criticism leveled at the FRA is really targeted at the NEPA process and historical societies with strong ideas about how existing infrastructure should be altered. Mica pointed out that rail actually improves the environment by taking cars off the road.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) expressed great enthusiasm for high-speed rail on the NEC, and engaged with Administrator Feinberg on the next steps coming up in the NEC Future process.
Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) chided opponents of high-speed rail who have been criticizing project delays while simultaneously throwing up obstacles to construction and obstructing rail funding. Rep. Costa had a constructive back-and-forth with Rep. Mica, where Rep. Costa was able to set the record straight on the status of project construction.