Hotline #860 -- May 1, 2014

Following the NARP national leadership meeting, held this week in Washington, D.C., we will be presenting an abbreviated version of this week’s Hotline. We’ll return with a full news roundup next week.

 

President Barack Obama sent his $302 billion investment plan for road, trains, and transit to Congress this week.

As NARP reported earlier, the Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act, or GROW AMERICA Act, will include $19 billion in dedicated funding for rail programs over four years for high performance and passenger rail programs, with a focus on improving the connections between key regional city pairs and high traffic corridors throughout the country. It also includes $72 billion to invest in transit systems and expand transportation options.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was busy all day Tuesday promoting the plan. His schedule included a stop at the NARP Capitol Hill reception (see video below), where he talked about the importance of passenger trains. He also found time to honor NARP President Emeritus Ross Capon on his 39 years of dedicated work for the cause of growing America’s passenger rail network.

“The GROW AMERICA Act will provide rail with a predictable, dedicated funding source and the tools needed to drive the next generation of rail safety and development,” said Joseph C. Szabo, Federal Railroad Administrator, who also appeared at NARP’s Capitol Hill gathering.  “It lays out a comprehensive strategy to eliminate risk on railroads through data-driven enforcement, proactive safety programs that identify risk in advance, and strong capital investment.  The safety gains identified in the bill, coupled with new investments in a higher performance rail network will move rail into the 21st Century.”     

The proposal includes broad structural changes that will look to maximize the value of limited federal funds to meet national goals. These changes include requiring cities and states to consider ALL modes of transportation when designing federally funded roads, and a two-fold increase to funding for the TIGER program, which has been very successful in advancing rail projects of all stripes throughout the U.S.

The plan relies largely on revenue from corporate tax reform. There is bipartisan agreement on this approach for infrastructure investment, with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) proposing a similar plan. However, it would almost certainly need to be part of a comprehensive overhaul of the corporate tax structure. Republicans and Democrats are fighting about what levels to establish for non-infrastructure spending, meaning it will be difficult to accomplish this reform before Washington shuts down for the 2014 midterm campaigns.

Congress Moves Ahead With Reduced Ambitions

While the President has put forth an ambitious plan, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has announced that she may introduce her own plan as early as next week. But members of her committee are warning that the surface transportation reauthorization bill will likely be limited, due to the time constraints imposed by the impending mid-term elections.

“The smart money I suppose is on we’re going to do some kind of transfer, some kind of short-term deal, until we get past the election,” said Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), chairman of Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

 

Representative Kevin Cramer (R-ND), winner of the NARP 2014 Golden Spike Award, with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx outside the NARP Capitol Hill reception.

NARP presented Representative Kevin Cramer of North Dakota with the prestigious Golden Spike Award yesterday for his strong support of passenger trains and transit, both locally and across the U.S.

Although Representative Cramer has only been in office since January 2013, he’s already played an outsized role in keeping America’s trains on track. The North Dakota native, along with other members of the state’s delegation, shined a spotlight on the oil-by-rail freight train congestion that was causing serious delays to Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which serves as a critical transportation connection to tens of thousands of North Dakotans. The congestion was also causing delays in the shipping of agricultural products by rail, hurting a vital part of North Dakota’s economy.

“I am honored to receive such a prestigious award,” said Representative Cramer. “The Golden Spike carries a rich history in our nation and state. North Dakota is in the eye of the storm as growing demand for rail to move industrial products, commodities and the most precious cargo, people, is highlighting safety concerns like never before. I join my colleagues in insisting on transparency as industry and the government work together to ensure safety is the highest priority on the tracks.”

Cramer’s work helped lead host railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to add 5,000 crewmembers system wide. BNSF also sent 250 temporary workers, 5,000 rail cars, and 125 locomotives to North Dakota to ease congestion.

“The Empire Builder connects 8.8 million Americans who live within 25 miles of one of the stations. Given the rural profile of many of the 46 towns along the route, this train provides the only transportation alternative to highways, and can be the only way to travel during harsh winter storms. As we documented in a recent survey, the Empire Builder provides a vital connection to hospitals in larger cites, serving as a literal lifeline for passengers,” said NARP Chairman Robert Stewart. “Our members, and all of America’s passengers, thank Representative Cramer for his work to keep the trains moving across the national network.”

News in Brief:

—Today marks Amtrak’s 43rd birthday. On May 1, 1971, Amtrak began operations across 21 routes in 43 states. Read more at the Amtrak blog.

—A CSX freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia yesterday, spilling around 50,000 gallons of oil and igniting a huge blaze on the surface of the James River. No injuries have been reported, but Virginian officials are saying it’s still too soon to determine the environmental impact of the spill.

The accident is likely to accelerate a regulatory response from the federal government, which has been working with local jurisdictions that are concerned about the recent increase in crude-by-rail freight traffic.

—Amtrak has launched a pilot-program in Illinois that will allow passengers to bring their pets on the train. The pilot program will allow passengers traveling between Chicago and Quincy on the Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg trains to bring dogs or cats up to 20-pounds each. Advance registration is required, and a $25 handling fee will be charged.

"Amtrak is supportive of accommodating pets on trains, and through direct collaboration with the Illinois Department of Transportation and a working group led by U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham of California, we are optimistic a plan can be reached to address the needs and concerns of all our passengers," said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman.

The pilot will run between May 5 and November 2 of this year.

—SunRail began commuter operations in the Orlando area today, offering free rides to the public. So many people are packing the trains that officials have struggled to keep the system on schedule.

—Officials are reporting that Talgo will move two passenger train sets out of Wisconsin and officially close operations at its Milwaukee plants.

—Miami is excited about the prospects of getting six commuter rail stations as the Tri-Rail Coastal Link expansion moves forward.

 

Travelers Advisory:

—An Amtrak train partially derailed in Montana on Monday. Of the 117 passengers, there was one minor injury reported.

—Downed power lines in Maryland caused severe delays on the Northeast Corridor this Tuesday. Crews were able to restore service that same day.