Senate Approves Further Amtrak Support for NEC; MTA Receives $27 Billion; Developers Focus on Revitalization Centered Around Rail
May 27, 2016
Regular and continuous investment in railroad infrastructure is vital to long-term growth and success, especially for Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor. Congress made note of this when it passed a new measure that would allow Amtrak to direct money into overdue repair and maintenance work between Washington and Boston, its busiest route in the country. The appropriations bill was passed last week and included $114 billion for transportation and housing programs. Language in this section allows Amtrak to channel its $300 million in annual profits from the NEC, back into the region’s infrastructure. Previously Amtrak used its profits to subsidize other routes throughout the country, but the change can allow Amtrak to maintain the NEC route’s bridges, viaducts and tunnels that are decades old and carry 2,000 passengers a day. The full Senate approved the bill last week, but it must now be merged with whatever the House passes before moving to the president’s desk for enactment.
Fortunately, Amtrak is not alone in receiving government support for repair and maintenance of infrastructure needs. New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will receive $27 billion as part of the 2015-19 MTA Capital Program, which is part of a plan to reimagine MTA for the 21st century. Final approval of the funding is big for the area, as it took months of political wrangling to agree upon the final amount. The source of the funds is yet to be determined, but the money will cover everything from track and station repairs to new train cars and buses. MTA will also be moving forward with a plan to renovate 31 subway stations throughout the New York metropolitan area.
Government funding, whether at the federal or state level, is critical for advancing passenger rail and public transit as a whole. At the same time, public funding for rail projects and take time, anywhere from months to years before it is approved and allocated. Private funding on the other hand, can help cities and states move forward quickly in the development and advancement of rail projects.
Take for example the Central Texas high-speed rail project, a proposed plan to connect Dallas and Houston utilizing private funding. In a letter to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), NARP stated that the Texas Central initiative is an important demonstration of the role private capital can and must play in building our new transportation economy, and is thus an important private project of national significance, introducing a new high-speed rail option between the two largest metropolitan regions in Texas. Connecting these two regions by passenger rail for the first time will have a significant, positive effect on the entire interstate rail network.
The letter provides NARP an opportunity to voice its members’ support for “A Connected America,” a multi-year initiative to promote long-distance, intercity, rail, commuter trains, light rail, transit and even bike share. The Texas Central initiative is a prime example of a project that will meet these goals, and inject an estimated $4.3 billion into the region during its construction phase in 2018 to 2021 alone.
The letter was presented to Chairman Daniel R. Elliott III, Vice Chairman Deb Miller, and Member Ann D. Begeman, and the full content of the letter can be viewed here.
With the development of passenger rail systems comes many benefits, including revitalization of neighborhoods that were largely forgotten or could benefit from new developments. Creation of new rail projects, such as those in Denver, CO or California, can bring in new jobs and economic growth, while connecting neighborhoods and cities that didn’t previously have appropriate levels of public transit. In Denver for example, the city just opened a 22.8 mile electrified rail system that connects downtown to the airport, and is part of a regional rail system that is transforming Denver and its suburbs. Using an unprecedented public-private partnership that combines private funding, local tax dollars and federal grants, Denver has accomplished something no other major metro area has in the past decade with such an arrangement: growing and expanding its passenger rail network. Originally intended as an alternative to congested highways, the new rail system has proven that its greatest value is the remarkable changes in land use its stations have prompted, from revitalizing moribund neighborhoods, like the area north of Union Station, to creating new communities where once there was only sprawl or buffalo grass.This includes the 10th and Osage neighborhood that was a forgotten part of town which a new station has brought the neighborhood back to life.
Similarly, advocates for high-speed rail in California claim that the new train will help revitalize communities and cities along the route, such as Fresno and Merced. By linking Fresno and San Jose for example, HSR could provide a home for workers displaced by unaffordable housing in the Central Valley. Overall, the Bay Area has become one of the most expensive areas to live within the U.S., which has pushed many people out of the area. As Silicon Valley took off, many middle-class workers moved to the north valley and transformed many communities into sprawling bedroom communities with more affordable housing. The median home price there is less than $250,000 in some neighborhoods, as compared to $900,000 in San Jose. However, the shift in living now sees thousands of people commuting two hours or more. Despite some optimism, there are skeptics who believe that HSR won’t have the impact on communities that many hope for. Commuting by HSR may also be costly, with one rough estimate weighing in at $2,000 a month for commuting each way five days a week.
Summer By Rail
Starting May 15th, Elena began a 38-day, 10,000 mile journey across the country, using only public transportation, mostly in the form of Amtrak and her bike, affectionately known as Stevie. Elena and Stevie began their adventure with a day of biking in New York City before a train ride to Chicago. She’ll continue on to the Pacific Northwest before traveling down the west coast, across the south and back up into the mid-Atlantic.
The trip is about much more than having fun, however. Elena’s purpose on the journey is to observe and share the ways multi-modal travel using public transportation can be seamless and easy. Along the way, she’s meeting with transportation officials, Mayors and community leaders, and she’s sharing stories from the communities she visits on how they use and view public transportation options in their respective areas.
Through her exploration, key elements of connectivity by rail and support for rail in various communities, will be shared to her audience via social media channels on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RailPassengers) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/railpassengers) at the handle @RailPassengers, and her blog at www.summerbyrail.com. People interested in Elena’s travels can also follow the hashtags #ElenaAndStevie and #GetRail for regular updates. Follow along and cheer her on!
Developers in Buffalo, NY and Salt Lake City, UT are also looking to build up neighborhoods surrounding rail lines in each city through a combination of rail and new housing and buildings. In Buffalo, in addition to renovating the city’s Central Terminal, developer Harry Stinson from Toronto wants to add more than 400 townhouses in the neighborhood surrounding the East Side train station, which has been empty for some time. The developer believe that the new housing, when combined with a revitalized Central Terminal, will create a vibrant neighborhood. Notably, Stinson states the proceeds from townhouse sales will be directed to the renovation of the Central Terminal. It is not yet clear whether or not passenger rail service returning to Central Terminal will be within the scope of the project, but with 500,000 square feet to fill, nothing can be discounted.
In the Sugar House area of Salt Lake City, the city council is on the verge of permitting zoning changes near the streetcar line that would allow for high-density housing and retail. The zoning change would permit building heights of 45 to 105 feet. The proposal has been in the works for more than three years, and were proposed by former Mayor Ralph Becker in 2013 and seek to take advantage of the transportation options offered by the Sugar House streetcar — or S Line — that debuted in December 2013.
There are still openings for state representatives on the NARP Council of Representatives in several states. Check out the full list of current vacancies here.
Of particular note, there are multiple vacancies in the states of California, Ohio and Texas. If you live in these states and want to become more active in NARP’s work, this is your opportunity to become involved. If you are interested in being considered for an appointment to an open state seat by the Board of Directors please complete this Candidate Information Statement.
Minnesota’s rail advocates are left in limbo, looking for alternative plans to support the the Southwest light-rail line, which failed to receive $135 million in funds from state legislators. Failure to pass the funding is attributed to bipartisan infighting between lawmakers, and government support fell apart. Without the funding, supporters of the line are unsure how the project will move forward. The state’s share of the $1.79 billion project, which would link Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, was supposed to be the final piece of local funding needed to win $895 million in federal matching dollars.
Despite the setback of the Senate voting against reintroducing funding for the New Hampshire Capitol Corridor rail expansion project, advocates say there are still alternatives available. Notably, supporters are researching public private partnerships that would allow private entities to work with public authorities to help provide financing for the rail project. However, opponents to the rail project that won the battle in senate are doubling down on their rhetoric, stating that such efforts are “misguided” and that unproven alternatives need to be explored, such as autonomous vehicles.
NARP members are invited to register to participate in one of three on-line free webinars being held on June 1st, to introduce NARP’s new partnership with Amtrak Vacations, the operator of Amtrak’s package tour offerings. Starting June 1st, NARP members will be entitled to a 10% discount on the rail portion of all Amtrak Vacation packages!
The 45-minute webinars will highlight many of the great destinations offered by Amtrak Vacations, including information on trips to National Parks such as Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and more. All webinar participants will receive a special discount coupon for a future tour booking, in addition to being able to take advantage of the new 10% rail discount.
For more information and to register to participate in a free webinar, visit the Amtrak Vacations page on the NARP website.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing with officials from the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority (WMATA) and questioned the agency’s demand for funding and its response to safety concerns. Since 2014, WMATA has been on "restricted drawdown," which has limited its ability to use federal grant money, but the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was questioned on when it would lift the restrictions on WMATA's ability to withdraw federal funds. WMATA is currently awaiting reimbursement for $483 million in federal funding through the FTA, and the federal agency said it would wrap up the final steps in a process to remove certain restrictions within the next few weeks, allowing WMATA access to the funds to support maintenance and repairs.
A new report from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has not fully implemented all safety requirements for a decade-old law focused on protecting Amtrak from terrorism. TSA notes that the delay is mainly due to the “complex federal rulemaking process,” but the report found that TSA has "limited regulatory oversight" to strengthen security at Amtrak stations since the agency has not fully implemented the requirements under a law Congress passed in 2007 in response to September 11. The inspector general's report was requested by several lawmakers following an August 2015 incident in which an armed gunman opened fire on a passenger train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris, highlighting the vulnerability of rail systems to terrorist attacks. The full report can be found online.
Funding for high-speed rail in California hit a snag after the state’s cap-and-trade market auction for greenhouse gases only brought in $10 million for state programs. The California High Speed Rail Authority expected to raise nearly $150 million. Of the $10 million raised, only $2.5 million will go towards supporting the rail line. Overall, buyers at the auction only bought 2 percent of carbon credits, but the auctioning of these credits raises issues of uncertainty and risk with relying on traded credits to build the bullet train. The rail authority is counting on the greenhouse gas fees to fulfill its legal obligation of matching about $3.5 billion in federal grants.
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