Hotline #740 - January 6, 2012

The California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group(PRG) issued fresh criticism of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project this week, releasing a report required by state law that challenges the project, especially for its lack of “credible sources of adequate funding.”  The California High Speed Rail Authority was quick to respond, condemning the report and questioning their fundamental understanding of how high-speed rail systems are built throughout the world.

The PRG’s report, mandated by California Law AB 3034, focused its criticism on the funding gap between the amounts currently available and the $74.5 billion final cost We cannot overemphasize the fact

that moving ahead on  

the HSR project without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California.”

CAHSRA responded that no large project of any stripe—rail, road, or otherwise—is held to this strict standard.  They argued that the plan created by the Authority was in line with best practices for high-speed rail systems built around the world.

Roelof van Ark, chief executive of CAHSRA, wrote, “It is unfortunate that the peer review committee has delivered a report to the Legislature that is deeply flawed in its understanding of the authority’s program and the experience around the world in successfully developing high-speed rail.  As someone involved in many of the successful high-speed rail programs internationally, I can say that the recommendations of this committee simply do not reflect a real world view of what it takes to bring such projects to fruition.”

[Read more new about California’s high-speed rail line at the NARP Blog.]

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded more than $186 million in high-speed and intercity passenger rail funds to the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) this week for projects to improve the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.

The money will allow for the extension of work on the corridor north of Joliet, bringing 110 mph speeds to 70 percent of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.  Once completed, the work will reduce total trip time between the two cities by an hour.

“The Great Lakes-Midwest economic region is the world’s fifth largest economy by Gross Domestic Product, and nearly 100 million people live within 500 miles of each other,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “The Department of Transportation’s investment of more than $1 billion in the region’s high-speed rail service will reduce trip times and save travelers money, resulting in reduced congestion for the region and making the Midwest a better place to start a business and create jobs.”

The corridor will also see the introduction of new equipment, further benefiting passengers. Thirty-three quick-acceleration locomotives, along with 120 bi-level passenger cars, will be introduced into service on routes serving Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, California, Washington and Oregon.  Funded by a $782 million high-speed and intercity passenger rail grant, the equipment will create good paying jobs in the American rail manufacturing industry.

The American Public Transportation Association has launched a renewed campaign to restore pre-tax commuter public transit benefit that was slashed in half at the end of December.

The expansion of the commuter benefit was allowed to lapse from $230 to the pre-Recovery Act of 2009 amount of $125.  This while the parking commuter pre-tax benefit was raised from $230 to $240 to account for inflation.

“Reducing the benefits for public transit rider at the same time that tax benefits are increased for auto usage is a significance divergence from this country’s balanced approach to transportation,” wrote APTA President Michael Melaniphy.

APTA is counting on outraged commuters to pressure elected officials—they estimate that the average worker who uses mass transit will be facing an extra $516 in income taxes as a result of the cuts to benefits.  This will be the first week workers will see the effects of the cuts.  The problem is partly explained by the fact that transit is relatively unimportant in rural America and senior Senate Finance Committee members are from rural states.  Among the three top Democrats and three top Republicans on the committee, only ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has a local rail transit system.  Chairman Max Baucus is from Montana.  The four other “most senior” committee members represent West Virginia (minor commuter rail presence), North Dakota, Iowa and Maine.

There are currently two pieces of proposed legislation that would put the benefits on equal footing at $230, and eliminate the need for the public transit benefit to be renewed yearly.  Sponsored by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), the bills are numbered H.R. 2412 and S. 1034, respectively.

Scenarios released January 3 by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority reveals that the Authority is looking at a number of distressing proposals to raise fares and reduce service in order to close a yawning budget deficit.

The MBTA released two proposals to close the projected Fiscal Year 2013 deficit.  Changes to labor practices and employee benefits are on the table.  But increased maintenance costs for an aging fleet and growing debt servicing demands resulting from capital investment projects require additional steps.

“While the MBTA continues to identify and adopt strict measures to close the budget gap, less costly ways of doing business and additional revenue-generating measures are necessary,” said MassDOT Transportation Secretary and CEO Richard Davey. “I am confident with the public’s involvement in this process we can review the study, propose recommendations, and together generate new revenue to continue the progress the MBTA has made in serving its customers.”

Most commentators acknowledge that fare increases are inevitable; MBTA’s fares are among the lowest in the country and there has not been a fare increase in five years. 

Both scenarios, however, would eliminate weekend service on the MBTA’s commuter rail lines—a significant blow to the mobility of passengers in the area.  The move would be particularly distressing given the increased ridership on the system—and greater public reliance on the transit services provided. 

A Boston Business Journal editorial today, “The MBTA: Fares and fairness” included this: “The T’s troubles have been a problem in the making for long time, and if the citizens of public transportation arise in anger, most of it deserves to be directed at the Legislature.  The powers that be on Beacon Hill originally saddled the T with debt it couldn’t carry over 10 years ago and has largely ignored the problem ever since…Public transportation needs to become a top policy priority: The Legislature should take back some of the T’s debt and restructure the rest to give the T some much-needed breathing room to catch up with deferred maintenance and invest in the future.”

The public will be given a chance to provide feedback and insight on the proposed changes:

The MBTA’s public outreach process begins immediately with the acceptance of public comment through March 1, 2012 electronically at, by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , via mail to MBTA, Ten Park Plaza, Boston, Ma 02116, Attention: Fare Proposal Committee, and by phone at 617-222-3200/ TTY (617) 222-5146.  20 Public meetings including one hearing will be held beginning January 17 through March 6.  A complete list of meetings times and locations is now available at

“With MBTA ridership at record levels, the demand for the services we deliver is unquestionable,”  said Acting MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis.  “I look forward to an open and transparent public process that will lead to recommendations on how we can continue to satisfy demand while addressing the T’s financial crisis.”

Virginian elected officials announced December 30 that the popular Lynchburg to Washington, D.C. passenger train service will continue to run in spite of budgetary constrictions.

“A number of Delegates and Senators up and down this rail corridor lobbied very hard to have this service continued,” said Delegate David Toscano, who played an active role in the process. “And while we still need to find a dedicated source of revenue for future years, language in the proposed budget provides another two years, which is a great victory in these challenging fiscal times.”

Virginia’s newly enacted budget allows the Commonwealth Transportation Board to allocate enough funds to keep the train running.  The train has consistently outperformed initial ridership and revenue projections.  Commonwealth officials report that the Lynchburg service covers all of its operational costs, and it is one of the highest-performing state-supported Amtrak routes in the U.S. 

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced updated safety regulations intended to improve passenger safety by making exits and emergency exits more visible and easy to access.

The new rules are based on recommendations by the FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee.  Among other things, the regulations will change specifications for vestibule doors, emergency lighting, emergency entrance and exit signage, photoluminescent guides to highlight emergency exits, and access for rescuers.

“Adoption of these safety measures will help rail passengers locate and operate emergency exits,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement. “These improvements will also make sure that first responders can quickly reach passengers in need during emergency situations.”

While most passenger rail equipment is already in compliance with the new rules, the FRA is working to ensure uniformity of compliance.  When reached for comment, Amtrak told reporters that its entire fleet already meets the new standards.

“Safety is Amtrak’s top priority,” said Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm. “Our existing equipment is compliant with federal rail safety requirements now on the books, and we are presently building 130 new single-level long-distance passenger rail cars that also will meet federal safety standards.”

Passenger trains between New York and Newark were halted for three hours yesterday as a century old swing bridge across the Hackensack River remained unlocked due to a mechanical error.

The Portal Bridge, which began service in 1910, is a critical link for regional rail traffic, carrying both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains.  Given its placement on the Northeast Corridor, this kind of shut down can affect traffic as far north as Maine and as far south as Virginia.

The federal government recently appropriated $38.5 million to begin design work on a replacement for the bridge.  A replacement is expected to cost around $720 million, however, and there is little appetite among either state or federal governments to engage in that level of investment. 

While Portal replacement is part of Amtrak’s Gateway project that also includes new Hudson River tunnels, Gateway has only secured only $15 million.  Final costs, meanwhile, will run into the billions (the comparable Access to the Regions Core tunnels, set to be built along the same stretch of the Hudson River before being scrapped by Governor Chris Christie in 2010, would have cost around $9 billion).