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Compromise on surface transportation bill a disappointment to train passengers

June 28, 2012

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

After months of gridlock and bicameral bickering, House and Senate conferees unveiled a surface transportation bill compromise late on Wednesday night. And for train passengers, this unveiling will undoubtedly leave them with a resounding sense of disappointment.

The compromise bill eliminates the Senate’s rail title entirely. The only real provision directed at rail is the extension of a Railroad Grade Crossing set aside, which targets funds at improving and upgrading crossings to eliminate collisions between automobiles and trains.

While the Railroad Grade Crossing is a fine program, it’s hardly enough for a 27-month extension that will dictate how federal tax dollars are spent through September 2014. With dramatically increasing congestion and volatile oil prices, America can no longer afford its overreliance on highways.

It’s particularly disappointing given the number of good rail provisions included in the Senate’s version. Specifically:

  • Creation of a 100% federal grant program for improvements to or preservation of routes over 750 miles long (which could help preserve existing Southwest Chief service in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico).
  • Making Amtrak eligible to receive federal grants under PRIIA sections 301 (intercity passenger rail service corridor capital assistance grants) and 302 (congestion grants) and let Amtrak use its own revenues as the 20% match for these grants.
  • Elimination of the three-year limit that has applied when states use CMAQ funds for operating grants for Amtrak routes meeting the CMAQ program’s requirements. This would eliminate the need for a special, legislated exception every three years. The three-year limit is not in law but is in guidance from the Federal Highway Administration. CMAQ stands for Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement, one of the programs in existing surface transportation law.

In general, the Senate gave up environmentally-friendly provisions while the House gave up its Keystone XL pipeline and coal ash provisions as well as some Amtrak-related provisions that NARP opposed.

  • Gone is the Senate provision that would have restored parity between employer-provided parking fees and transit fares (see box on page 2 of May NARP News).
  • Gone is the Senate provision (which we supported) to reasonably extend the deadline for Positive Train Control, in up to three, one-year, increments, subject to the DOT secretary’s approval on an individual company basis.
  • Bad news for those fighting to improve railroad/highway grade crossing safety: “At the insistence of House Republicans, the Senate dropped a safety provision that would have required commercial trucks to be equipped with devices that keep track of how many hours drivers spend behind the wheel. The purpose of the devices is to keep drivers who haven’t had enough rest off the road. The provision was supported by large commercial truck companies, safety advocates and labor unions, but opposed by drivers who own their trucks.”
  • “The Senate agreed to effectively reduce money available for bike paths, pedestrian safety projects and other ‘transportation enhancements’ by making them compete with other transportation programs for the same pool of funds. Republicans derided the program as wasting money on planting flowers. Supporters said that while highway landscaping was one project category eligible for funds, more than half the money is used for sidewalks, crosswalks, medians, bike lanes and other safety-related improvements. Cutting funding for biking and pedestrian projects was a high priority for House GOP freshmen, who said the money would be better spent on roads and bridges” (this and previous bullet: Washington Post news report).

Particularly because of the last point above, the Transportation Equity Network is outraged. Their e-mail today stated:

Gone or gutted are important provisions from the bipartisan, Senate-passed surface transportation bill, MAP-21, that would:

  • keep our buses rolling and folks in our communities working during periods of economic crisis
  • make streets safer for the most vulnerable in our communities—especially children, seniors, low income people, and people with disabilities
  • provide consistent requirements ensuring that folks have a say in big transportation projects that affect their communities, their health, and their environment

In their place are provisions from HR 7—the House bill that never made it past the majority caucus—that set progressive transportation policy and equity programs back by decades.

With the release of this report, the conference committee…has missed important opportunities to create even more jobs through flexible transit operating provisions that cost the federal government nothing and to establish career pathways for low income people, people of color, and women in the transportation construction industry.

There may be one unintended upshot from this bill (which looks set to pass both the House and the Senate): because highway needs outstrip what the gas tax is providing, the U.S. Treasury will have to pay general taxpayer dollars into the Highway Account—$6.2 billion in 2013, and $10.4 billion 2014, all in. The Treasury will also pay $2.2 billion in into the Mass Transit Account 2014. That will mean that the federal government has poured north of $50 billion non-user tax dollars into highways in the last four years alone. That’s more government funding than Amtrak has received in its entire history. It is reported that another major source of funding for the two-year bill is “pension smoothing” – reducing the amount that companies must pay into their pension plans so as to increase the taxes paid by those companies.

So maybe we can finally stop hearing the “roads pay for themselves, abolish taxpayer-dependent-Amtrak”-myth constantly repeated by anti-rail forces, ad nauseum.

(But don't hold your breath.)