After a marathon mark-up that began at 9 a.m. yesterday and lasted until 3 a.m. this morning, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a controversial four and a half year, $260 billion surface transportation reauthorization by a party-line vote of 29 to 24
The “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act” (H.R. 7) essentially caps spending at current levels, a worrying proposition given that the American Society for Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. would need to spend an additional $2.2 trillion between 2009 and 2014 just to bring America’s infrastructure into a state of good repair—to say nothing of meeting the needs of our growing population.
While infrastructure bills are usually a reliable opportunity for lawmakers to reach across the aisle, T&I Chairman John Mica seems to be navigating a different course. The bill’s focus is on controlling costs; reducing spending on rail, transit, and bike infrastructure and narrowing the surface transportation bill’s focus to highways and bridges; and eliminating and truncating the environmental impact reviews that add years onto many transportation construction projects. (Ironically, the Club for Growth—ostensibly the target audience for this bill—has came out against the legislation.)
The rail provision of the bill was insubstantial, focusing on a 25 percent reduction of Amtrak’s authorized operating-grant levels—appropriators almost never give Amtrak the full amount authorized.
In a statement released February 1, NARP expressed grave doubts about the transit and rail titles:
While we are encouraged at the prospect of some long-awaited movement on addressing our nation’s transportation needs, [H.R. 7] has measures that would take transportation policy in the wrong direction when more and more people are turning to train travel.
We strongly oppose further reductions in Amtrak’s already bare-bones federal operating grant. Following hard on budget cuts that already have forced unhealthy reductions in Amtrak’s capital and operating grants, these new cuts are at odds with the goal of encouraging train travel.
The bill also sought to privatize food service on Amtrak trains, which NARP argued constitutes micro-management by Representatives on the Committee:
[T]he privatization of Amtrak food service personnel is impractical, and constitutes micro-management of one area when Congress’s appropriate focus should be on Amtrak’s overall bottom line. Having trains partly staffed with Amtrak personnel and partly with private sector personnel (presumably, unionized and non-unionized, respectively) likely would increase the complexity of the operation and end such efficient sharing of tasks among different Amtrak personnel as currently exists. Also, it is not clear that the legislation takes into account the fact that Amtrak’s on-the-ground commissaries already are privatized, and meals for sleeping-car passengers are included in the ticket price. The flaws in this proposal are exacerbated by the prohibition against Amtrak’s ability to sue certain parties. Congress has tried to micro-manage food service on previous occasions, never successfully.
Paying for the Bill
House Republicans say they are looking to finance the gap through a number of ways. In the House Committee on Natural Resources, the GOP moved forward a bill that creates a transportation fund financed through license fees garnered from opening up land for new oil drilling (predictably, it has garnered controversy).
Another proposal is of grave concern for public transportation users. The House Ways & Means Committee has passed a bill that eliminates dedicated funding for public transit. The bill eliminates the Mass Transit Account with the Highway Trust Fund, and uses a one time General Funds transfer of $40 billion (with no offsets) to create a separate “Alternate Transportation Fund” account. A coalition of 600 groups led by Transportation For America—including NARP, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Public Transportation Association, AARP, and the National Association of Realtors, among many others—issued a letter to the head of the Ways & Means Committee condemning the language:
For the first time in thirty years, the pending legislation H.R. 3864, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act, removes the certainty of a continued revenue source for our transit systems as well as the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program.
Specifically, we are deeply concerned about the provision in H.R. 3864 that would terminate funding from the excise tax on gasoline and replace it with the Alternative Transportation Account. In place of gasoline tax revenues, the legislation would provide a one-time $40 billion transfer of General Fund revenues to the Alternative Transportation Account. Not only is this level of funding insufficient to fully fund the proposed authorized levels for the Alternative Transportation Account, but it would subject transit and CMAQ funding to the annual appropriations process. This change will make it impossible for public transit systems across the country to plan for the future. It will also make it impossible for the FTA to honor grant agreements.
A Successful Attack on High-Speed Rail Line in California
The committee adopted an amendment by Jeff Denham (R-CA) to ensure that California’s high-speed rail project is prohibited from receiving any of the bill’s $260 billion.
While it is unclear if any of the money is going to high-speed rail, it was a pointed attack by House Republicans on the San Francisco to Los Angles project.
Deadline for Safety Technology Extended
H.R. 7 also contained a five year extension for the enactment of Positive Train Control, a system of advanced signaling that detects and prevents train collisions. NARP’s statement recognized the need for an extension of the deadline, but argued five years was too long:
[NARP] can support extending beyond 2015 the deadline for installing Positive Train Control to prevent train-to-train collisions on passenger and certain hazmat routes. However, we do not support a five-year extension. Also, any extension should be accompanied by language clarifying the need to prevent rear-end collisions, which current federal regulations do not do. Our detailed comments on Positive Train Control are available here.
Amtrak released its fiscal year 2013 budget request today, seeking $2.167 billion. The request breaks down to $1.435 billon for national capital and infrastructure projects; $450 million in federal operating support, $212 million for debt service; and $60 million as part of its mission to develop 220 mph service to the Northeast Corridor (NEC).
“Congress has given Amtrak a critical national mission to provide intercity passenger rail service, and with an appropriate level of federal funding support, we can secure a stronger future for our country and reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil,” said President and CEO Joe Boardman.
Boardman called on Congress to move forward in passing a long-term surface transportation reauthorization that would provide comprehensive, multi-modal solutions to the problems congesting America’s transportation network. He identified five goals that he believes the bill should address: “provide dedicated, multi-year funding for intercity and high-speed passenger rail; establish a national investment strategy; create a clear and leading role for Amtrak; ensure coordinated corridor planning and project execution; and address liability and insurance issues.”
The passenger railroad is requesting $450 million in federal operating support for the upcoming year, less than the $466 million appropriated in FY2012. Amtrak is describing this decreased reliance on federal funds as a result of record ridership, anticipated increase in revenue, increased efficiency, and success in the program to reduce their debt.
“Amtrak’s request for less federal operating support is a strong
statement on just how much this railroad has improved its management and
financial health. The fact is, Amtrak now covers 85 percent of its
operating costs with non-federal dollars and we will further improve on
that number without cutting service,” said Boardman.
NARP, Californians for High-Speed Rail, and Midwest High Speed Rail Association joined together this week to issue a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown, calling on his Administration to move forward with construction on the high-speed rail (HSR) project’s first segment.
“The need to break ground this year for the Initial Construction Segment in the San Joaquin Valley is paramount to the future of HSR in the state and nation,” said the letter. “Furthermore, HSR will serve as the catalyst for a robust expansion of California’s economy and provide a significant boost to employment in the state.”
The three train advocacy groups also proposed accelerating plans to engage in passenger rail investment in the HSR corridor’s densely populated endpoints.
“To ensure the necessary level of public support for the statewide HSR project, it is important that people in the major metropolitan areas (where a large portion of California citizens reside) also see tangible benefits in the first phases of construction,” continued the statement. “We therefore urge you, in concert with the existing passenger rail agencies, to work to allocate such funds as are available to projects that will enhance public safety and improve existing rail services in corridors that high-speed rail trains will utilize upon further investments.”
The Governor himself addressed concerns about the project this week, indicating that his Administration was looking at creative ways to finance the project that would not rely entirely on state-issued bonds and federal grants.
“It’s not going to be $100 billion. That’s way off,” said Brown in an interview, referring to the projected final-cost of the corridor (in inflation adjusted 2033 dollars). “I’m trying to redesign it in a way that in and of itself will be justified by the state investment. We do have other sources of money—for example, cap-and-trade, which is this measure where you make people who produce greenhouse gases pay certain fees—that will be a source of funding going forward for the high-speed rail.”
In related news, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) approved Governor Brown’s hand-picked appointee, Dean Richard, as its new Chairman yesterday. Richards will take over for Tom Umberg.
A former director on the Board of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, Richards is expected to bring some political savvy to CAHSRA. The Authority’s chief executive officer, Roleof Van Ark, brought a wealth of experience in the international construction of high-speed rail lines, but was generally viewed to lack an insight into the particularities of California’s political landscape. Van Ark announced his resignation in January, and is staying-on as an interim manager while CAHSRA performs a search for his replacement.
At the hearing, Richards expressed confidence in the essential integrity of the project, while recognizing room to improve the Authority’s public outreach.
“The fundamentals of high-speed rail, the reasons why California
should embark on high-speed rail, are sound,” Richard told the board in a
public hearing in Sacramento. “Having said that, we also know that our
business plan probably can be improved in a number of ways… As we revise
our plans, I think people will see that we’ve been responsive to the
Led by the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council (LIRRCC), NARP joined a broad coalition of passenger and transit organizations to send letters to the leaders in Congress this week, urging them to restore 2011 limits on pre-tax commuting benefits.
Sent to Majority Leaders Harry Reid (D-NV) in the Senate and John Boehner (R-OH) in the House, the letters called on the bodies to support the permanent restoration of parity between the parking and transit benefit provisions.
The maximum transit benefit reverted from its prior level of $230 per month to $125 per month in December 2011, while the parking counterpart was raised from $230 to $240 to account for inflation. The passenger coalition is looking to get the levels locked in at an equal rate, arguing that subsidizing automotive commuting at a higher level than commuting by mass transit runs counter to the broad national goals the U.S. has set for itself:
“Action on this issue would resolve uncertainty as to the authorized maximum level of the benefit and would provide American workers with a greater incentive to use public transportation and vanpools for their commute. This would in turn help to ease traffic congestion, reduce dependency on foreign sources of oil, and provide small businesses and other employers with a financial incentive to help employees increase their disposable income. This is a particularly effective example of how targeted federal policy can achieve important aims while improving the economic situation of both employers and workers.”
An impressive list of groups signed-on to the letter with LIRRCC,
including: All Aboard Ohio, (Atlanta) Citizens for Progressive Transit,
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, Dart (Des Moines) Transit Riders
Advisory Committee, Greater Dayton (Ohio), RTA Riders Council, Kansas
City Regional Transit Alliance, MARC (Maryland) Riders Advisory Council,
MBTA (Boston) Advisory Board, Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council,
Miami-Dade MPO, Milwaukee Transit Riders Union, New York City Transit
Riders Council, Rail Users’ Network, SEPTA (Philadelphia) Citizen
Advisory Committee, Transit Advocates of Orange County (California), and
the (Chicago) Transit Riders Authority.
Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation (WisDOT) is reporting that Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service established a new annual ridership record in 2011, setting 11 new monthly ridership records in the process.
The Milwaukee-Chicago train carried over 823,163 passengers in 2011, a four percent increase over the 2010 figure. In addition, the Hiawatha set ridership records in every month but August in 2011.
Inaugurated in 1989, the Hiawatha Service is the busiest Amtrak
corridor in the Midwest and the sixth busiest in the country. Capable
of running the 86-mile corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago in about
90 minutes, it is an outstanding example of the potential for
conventional-speed train service.
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) released a finalized State Rail Plan on January 30, a 20-year development blueprint which will serve to guide passenger and freight rail investment in the state.
“There are huge rail needs in the state of Michigan and this is a great start in identifying those needs,” said Larry Karnes, MDOT’s freight policy expert who headed the team that prepared the plan. “The plan takes a conservative view of future funding, while addressing the importance of freight and passenger rail to our economy and environment.”
Developed in concert with state transportation planners, stakeholders, and the public, the plan identifies $7.2 billion worth of investments to meet current and future needs between now and 2030. In funding the plan, MDOT assumes a moderate increase in funding from all sources, though it leans heavily on the federal High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program. MDOT also expects to receive funding from the Canadian government for the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel project that will connect Michigan to Ontario.
You can read the full plan on the MDOT Web site by clicking here.