Hotline #851 -- February 28, 2014

In a visit to St. Paul’s restored Union Depot, President Barack Obama outlined an ambitious $302 billion, 4-year investment plan for America’s roads, bridges, railways, and transit. $19 billion of that will go towards rail, with another $72 billion directed to transit.  

The $302 billion surface transportation plan relies on a one-time infusion of $150 billion in revenue from corporate tax reform. That will be a heavy lift for Congress, but the President has found a cautious ally in Representative Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman. Camp has released a broad tax reform proposal that includes $120-125 billion for the Highway Trust Fund. And with the Highway Trust Fund projected to go broke sometime in August without an increase in government support, there’s an incentive for Democrats and Republicans to find a bipartisan compromise.

Significantly, the President’s plan would finally include passenger rail within the surface transportation program. That means a steady, predictable source of funding that would allow Amtrak and states to engage in multi-year planning, a necessary prerequisite for equipment purchases and broad infrastructure upgrades. While specifics haven’t yet been released, the package identifies $19 billion in dedicated funding for rail programs. That would mean almost $5 billion each year for high performance passenger rail programs, with “a focus on improving the connections between key regional city pairs and high traffic corridors throughout the country.”

The President’s proposal also identifies $72 billion for transit over four years, an increase of roughly 70 percent over current annual spending. The funding will to expand light rail systems, street car lines, and bus rapid transit services—not only in cities, but in suburbs, small towns, and aging rural communities. The money will also fund state of good repair programs for America’s aging transit systems.

There’s reason to be cautious: this Congress hasn’t been active at the best of times, much less right before an election. But it’s an amazing thing when the President of the United States pushes for passenger trains to be included as part of a comprehensive transportation program. If enacted, it would mean predictable, sustainable levels of funding for trains, and that allows Amtrak and the states to plan, to buy new equipment, and to make much needed investments in critical infrastructure.

President Also Pushes Next Round of TIGER

The President was in St. Paul to celebrate the renovation of Union Depot, which returned intercity passenger trains back downtown after more than 30 years. The restoration occurred as part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which provides funding to projects of regional significance that generate positive economic development. Thanks to the TIGER program, Union Depot is being transformed from a dusty, overrun old building into a modern regional transit hub.

The President was on hand to kick off the sixth round of TIGER funding. Congress allocated $600 million for the program in FY 2014. In the previous five rounds, the U.S. Department of Transportation received more than 5,300 applications adding up to nearly $115 billion in transportation projects, so the available funds are sure to be hotly contested. In its five year history, the TIGER grant program has awarded $3.5 billion to 270 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Rail projects—particularly ones that support rural communities—have done extremely well in the application process in previous rounds.

 

NARP announced this week that Ross Capon will be transitioning from his 39-year career with the organization. Dr. Larry Scott will take over as Acting President. 

Capon has worked for NARP since 1975, becoming Executive Director in 1976. He has been a tireless advocate for national passenger rail system that provides America’s passengers with a safe, reliable, convenient travel choice.

“Ross has served America’s passengers with great distinction during his 39 year tenure,” said NARP Chairman Bob Stewart. “During Ross’s time at NARP, the Association’s recognition and influence significantly increased. That’s reflected not only in the recognition he has received in the industry, but in the growth of passenger rail across the nation.”

“I am confident that the top-notch staff I have assembled will continue to strengthen the Association’s ability to press for the improvement and growth of our nation’s passenger train network and to grow membership,” said Capon. “I will be working closely with Acting President Larry Scott, and I’m pleased to be able to assist Larry in ensuring the smoothest possible transition in leadership and the continued growth of NARP.”

For his longstanding support of trains, Capon has been recognized with the Robert K. Pattison Partnership Award from the Intermodal Passenger Institute in 2000, and the W. Graham Claytor Jr. Award for Distinguished Service to Passenger Transportation from Railway Age Magazine in 2007. In addition, Capon received NARP’s own Golden Spike Award in 1985.

 

In response to the announcement that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is considering selling the rail corridor between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the National Association of Railroad Passengers sent a letter to Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma urging her to take steps to preserve the right for passenger train service on 97-mile stretch known as the Sooner Subdivision. The Oklahoma Transportation Commission is currently deliberating on the future of the route.

[Looking to get involved? Check out the NARP Blog to find out how you can support passenger rail in Oklahoma!]

The corridor hasn’t seen passenger rail service since 1967; however, the state purchased it from BNSF in 1998 in order to preserve it for local shippers and to safeguard the option to develop passenger service. NARP and communities along the route are concerned that selling the corridor risks eliminating this option.

“Your daily Heartland Flyer service from Oklahoma City and Fort Worth shows that the public takes to trains in large numbers,” wrote NARP’s Chairman Robert Stewart. “They will do the same once an intrastate connection to Tulsa is added. When Iowa Pacific ran three demonstration trains on the Sooner Subdivision earlier this month, they drew a crowd of over 900 passengers, selling out all three runs. Local leaders recognize this fact, and city councils in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Sapulpa, Bristow and Norman have all passed unanimous resolutions requesting that the state retain ownership of the railroad.”

After the state bought the route in 1998, Stillwater Central Railroad took over operations and revitalized the line, which has grown steadily. Oklahoma receives 10 percent of gross revenues, which equaled $591,000 in 2013 alone. The Oklahoma Department of Commerce is now conducting an economic impact and activity study to evaluate potential effects of the sale of the Sooner Subdivision.

“May 14, 1967 marked the last passenger train service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, with the last run of the Frisco'sOklahoman. Four years later saw passenger train leave Tulsa entirely, when the Santa Fe's Tulsan was discontinued on May 1, 1971. More than 40 years is far too long a time for the citizens of this region to be denied a choice in how they travel across the great state of Oklahoma,” continued Stewart. “Today, you have the power to change that, and we urge you to show leadership in ensuring that Oklahomans have access to a balanced, world-class transportation system.”

 

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors discussed fare hikes during a February 25 public hearing.

Adult fare for a Muni ticket could rise from $2 to $2.25. The board also discussed raising the price of a ticket on the F-Market and Wharves streetcar lines to $6; the lines are heavily used by tourists, and would move in line with what it currently costs to ride San Francisco’s famous cable cars.

The fare increase comes despite a $22 million surplus for 2014-2015. The board is also looking at expanding free rides for low- and moderate-income youths between ages 5 and 17.

 

While NARP has focused on delays to Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the drilling boom in North Dakota, combined with severe winter weather, is also negatively affecting Minnesota’s Northstar Line commuter service. Delays have gotten so bad that Metro Transit is advising passengers to find alternate forms of transportation.

"Expect significant delays (60-90 minutes) due to freight traffic," read an announcement made by Metro Transit through its social media channels on February 24. "Consider alternate travel arrangements if possible."

To deal with the rail congestion, BNSF has promised to send 5,000 additional crew members system-wide, with 250 temporary workers dispatched directly to North Dakota; add 500 new locomotives system-wide, with 125 temporarily dispatched to North  Dakota; and add 5,000 new railcars. While the infrastructure upgrades to restore service to normal will be part of a multiyear capital investment plan, NARP continues to work with federal officials to ensure that all delays are temporary.

 

The Times-Picayune is reporting that a high-profile group of political leaders from southern Louisiana met with federal officials to push for the development of passenger rail service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The Picayune identified the meetings participants as State House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger (D-New Orleans), Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s chief administrative officer Andy Kopplin, and Baton Rouge Area Foundation Executive Director John Spain.

The initial capital costs to upgrade the rail corridor’s infrastructure have been projected at $250 million, with annual operating costs estimated at roughly $7 million. The trains would travel along the 80-mile corridor at speeds of around 68-79 mph. The engineering firm HNTB has been hired to execute a route study, which will flesh out details and provide ridership projections. The group is looking at the TIGER program as potential source for funding.

"I'm optimistic because the two cities finally got together at the same time to move this thing forward," said Mayor Holden.

 

The Colorado Department of Transportation concluded two studies for a high speed rail network that would connect Denver to Pueblo and Fort Collins. The study found that the train service would provide undeniable benefits, carrying 18-19 million passengers each year in a region choked by road congestion.

The Interregional Connectivity Study cost around $5 million to complete, and looked at a wide range of technology, alignments, financing, and demand. A number of alternatives were looked at, from 90 mph conventional service all the way up 180 mph bullet trains.

The study put the total cost of the project at roughly $30 billion. CDOT officials said that price tag put the project out of reach for the near term while reaffirming the study’s utility, saying it would serve to guide development when the funds became available. Coloradan rail advocates are sure to take up this challenge and push for near-term action on the plan. If President Obama’s recent rail funding proposal becomes law, turning this study into reality could become a whole lot easier.

 

From the NARP Blog

Trains return to Tulsa: Since the introduction of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer in 1999, Oklahomans have once again seen the benefits of passenger rail service as a fast, relaxing mode of transportation. Rather than having to contend with frequent traffic jams and other congestion on Interstate 35, residents of Oklahoma City, Norman, Ardmore, and other towns can comfortably speed to Fort Worth. And, once they arrive at Fort Worth, passengers can then transfer to Amtrak’s Texas Eagle and continue to points east and west on the train’s route between Chicago, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. [Read More]

And, finally, politicians wavered in their support...: Sometimes it seems like America has lost the ability to do truly big things.  Previous generations carved out the Erie Canal, built the transcontinental railroad, laid the interstate highway, erected the Hoover Dam—heck, they sent people to the moonbecause it was hard. Nowadays, it seems like the best the traveling public can hope for is some sort of new mobile phone app. [Read More]

The Pullman Porters and the Journey to Justice: In 1867, entrepreneur and industrialist George Pullman had an idea that revolutionized rail travel with the sleeper car.  Pullman paid attention to and capitalized on the opportunities in the shift to industrialization and the railroads, which was taking over maritime transport. After a rough and uncomfortable train ride, he envisioned a hotel on wheels where passengers would receive 5-star service and a safe ride, while being cost effective.  During the early formation of the Pullman Company, Pullman employed white workers as porters, but he wanted the passengers to have the full service treatment and hospitality.  Pullman applied his cost effective model by hiring freedmen from the south—former slaves who had been freed after the Civil War. [Read More]

 

Passenger Advisory

—This evening marks the return of Amtrak service to Denver Union Station, following almost three years of work on a $500 million renovation.

Beginning with this evening’s California Zephyr, Denver Union Station will once again be a working train station (1701 Wynkoop St., Denver, CO).