Senators, DOT Nominee Peters Upbeat on Passenger Rail

Release #06-15—September 20, 2006

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Washington, D.C.—Mary Peters, President Bush’s nominee to be Secretary of Transportation, was warmly received at her confirmation hearing this afternoon. Amtrak also figured prominently and favorably in the hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, chaired by Ted Stevens (R-AK). Peters seems assured of quick confirmation.

Peters, in her opening statement, said “intercity passenger rail is important.” Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) agreed. He told Peters to keep Amtrak on her radar screen, and said he would keep pushing the issue.

In answering questions from Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Peters said, “I also agree we need a national rail passenger system. To your questions about moving people in time of hurricanes and other disasters, Amtrak is part of our plans that have been developed since Katrina.”

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) urged Peters to put some people at the Department of Transportation who understand that Amtrak must be in the overall transportation mix. “They say no one rides the train. I say, ‘Just try getting a reservation on the Empire Builder.’”

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) called the Empire Builder “an important, popular service,” and said a majority of committee members do not want to eliminate long-distance trains.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) called Amtrak in Maine “very successful…so successful that we’re looking to extend the service further up the state [north of Portland].” She noted that Maine’s right to use Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funds to support the service expires in FY 2009. Snowe wanted Peters’ views on letting Maine continue using those funds for passenger rail. Peters, who once headed Arizona DOT, responded that, “as a former state DOT official I encourage that. Having that kind of flexibility and state involvement will be critical in the future.”

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) noted the importance of investing in rail generally as one answer to congestion. He lamented that much of the value of the tax credits enacted for [short line] railroads a few years ago was nullified by the Alternative Minimum Tax, and said “the IRS is coming out with a ruling that will make tax credits still more onerous” to use, in conflict with Congressional intent.

Sens. Burns, Dorgan and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) all expressed frustration at the problem of freight railroads overcharging captive shippers.

Dorgan was highly critical of the Surface Transportation Board, saying “glaciers move more rapidly than the STB…We’d like an agency to stand up for consumers.” He said a North Dakota state commission estimated that shippers in his state were overcharged $100 million a year. Rockefeller told Peters, “I’ve been at it [the rail freight rate problem] for 22 years and made absolutely no progress…it’s got to be solved and I think your transparency creates an atmosphere where it could be solved.”

Several senators noted the importance of the Essential Air Services program to rural America.

NARP President George Chilson’s statement applauding Peters’ nomination is here on our website.

About NARP

NARP is the only national organization speaking for the users of passenger trains and rail transit. We have worked since 1967 to expand the quality and quantity of passenger rail in the U.S. Our mission is to work towards a modern, customer-focused national passenger train network that provides a travel choice Americans want. Our work is supported by approximately 20,000 individual members.