Hotline #866 -- June 13, 2014

It was an eventful week for passenger rail in the House—one that ended on a down note, with several anti-Amtrak amendments attached to the Fiscal Year 2015 transportation funding bill in last-minute votes.

On Monday, departing Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) made two attempts to cut funding—first by $340 million, then by $34 million. Both were rebuffed in a bipartisan fashion (one through a voice vote, one through a recorded vote).

Late on Tuesday evening, a trio of GOP Representatives launched their attack:

  • Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) amendment prohibiting any funds in the Act from being used during fiscal year 2015 for the California high-speed rail project – adopted by a vote of 227 yeas - 186 nays.
  • Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) amendment prohibiting any funds in the Act from being used during fiscal year 2015 to subsidize Amtrak food and beverage service – adopted by voice vote.
  • Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) amendment prohibiting any funds in the Act from being used during fiscal year 2015 to support the Amtrak route with the highest per-passenger subsidy (the Sunset Limited) – adopted by voice vote.

Luckily, an even more extreme amendment by Rep. Sessions to kill six long distance routes was shot down.

[Bonus for NARP Dues-Paying Members: see the aggregated voting charts here]

While Rep. Denham’s amendment is largely ceremonial, the other amendments would have a serious impact, cutting the lowest-performing long distance route—likely the Sunset Limited—and eliminate food and beverage on long distance trains.

Some members of Congress just don’t get it: you can’t cut your way to a functioning transportation system. After decades of underinvestment, the national rail system is so skeletal that further reductions will make it unworkable. As we know from the past: the savings from cutting a train from the network are overwhelmed by overhead costs spread across a fewer number of passengers. If Congress kills the Sunset, there will be an immediate effect on the network; the Texas Eagle will bring in less revenue with the loss of the through-cars to Los Angeles, and the Crescent and City of New Orleans will see their revenues fall through the loss of connecting passengers, and their costs rise when they become the sole occupants of the New Orleans terminal. If food is cut, there’s no telling how many Amtrak customers will be scared away. The House is trying hard to make Amtrak less efficient with these cuts. 

(Keep in mind, the House is spending precious time running Amtrak through the wringer for millions while they work to find $100 BILLION with which to subsidize the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to go bankrupt in August.) 

NARP needs your help! There are two steps America’s passengers must take to undo this damage:

  1. Let the House know that you’re paying attention, and you’re angry that these Amtrak-killing provisions were passed. (Better still, call your Representative today)
  2. The Senate is taking up the transportation spending bill next week. Click here to ask them to turn back any anti-train amendments (or better still, call your Senators

 

After malfunctioning twice in eight days, a rail bridge in southwestern Connecticut will be subject to review, announced Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy and Metro-North on Monday.

The swing bridge that opens five or six times a week for river traffic was stuck in “open” position twice in the past two weeks, preventing Metro-North and Amtrak trains from proceeding over the Norwalk River at peak commuting hours.

In response to the bridge failure, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) wrote a letter on Monday urging the U.S. Coast Guard to open the swing bridge as few times as possible until it is repaired.  His letter also pointed out that the bridge malfunctioned 16 of the 271 times it was opened in 2013.

The bridge will remain in “closed” position indefinitely while emergency repairs are made. Governor Malloy, however, is looking to a longer-term solution, which would be to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to replace the 118-year old bridge. Connecticut already applied for federal transportation aid which would cover $349 million of the expected $460 million needed to replace the bridge.

"There is no doubt we are now seeing decades of neglect when it comes to investing in our infrastructure," Governor Malloy told Connecticut News 12. "Over the last three and a half years Connecticut has changed course, but it's going to take an extended period of time to catch up."

While Senator Blumenthal, Governor Malloy, and Representative Jim Himes (CT-4) work to expedite federal funding for a new bridge, sailors who depended on the route are at a loss.

"The closure of the Walk Bridge has a large impact on this business," Paul Tomko, co-owner of United Marine in Norwalk, told theConnecticut Post. “We depend on our water terminal. I know that Metro-North is making every effort to rectify the issue. This needs to be fixed ASAP."

 

California High Speed Rail neared a major milestone on Thursday when Governor Jerry Brown and state legislative leaders struck an agreement that would grant the project 25% of future cap-and-trade revenue.

Although it’s less than the 33% the Governor had proposed, this deal gives HSR ongoing funding for construction. Senator Darrell Steinberg’s office estimated that the state could make $3-5 billion per year in cap-and-trade revenue, which would mean $750 million to $1.25 billion a year for HSR.

The budget deal will be voted on no later than Sunday, but Robert Cruickshank, founder of the California High Speed Rail Blog, wrote that he is confident that it will be finalized as is:

So this is perhaps the best news California HSR has had in over five years. Once this budget passes, the lingering questions about the project’s financial future will, in part, be answered. There’s still more money to be found to finish the whole route from LA to SF. But once an Initial Operating Segment is opened, private money can come in as well, which helps close the remaining gap.

 

NARP organized a panel of students, recent graduates and young professionals to testify in support of California high speed rail on June 3rd as part of the three-day West Coast Rail Conference in San Francisco, hosted by the US High Speed Rail Association.

The panel of young advocates was introduced by the Honorable Fiona Ma, former Assemblywoman and Speaker Pro Tem.  Each of the seven speakers provided different examples of why they support CA HSR, citing the benefits of high speed service in California and the demand for it, especially among the Millennial generation.

Andrew McLane, a NARP member and recent graduate of San Francisco State, helped mobilize the young speakers, which included McLane and his peers as well as NARP members Rebecca Sansom and Jeffery Tucker.

“One of the reasons I’m here today is because I feel a heightened sense of responsibility to do whatever I can to ensure that my generation’s opportunities are no longer car-dependent,” said Rebecca Sansom in her speech.

NARP organized this event in support of CA HSR and the #IWillRide initiative as part of NARP’s new Millennial Outreach Campaign, which empowers student leaders and recent grads to become leaders in passenger train advocacy. NARP has chosen California as the starting point of its nation-wide campaign, where it will be working with local affiliate groups to develop student initiatives that build support for CA HSR.

 

 

Officials broke ground for the final phase of Niagara Falls International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center on Monday.

 

"This is a great, historic milestone in the development, not just for the City of Niagara Falls, but our bi-national region as a whole," said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster. The new station will serve as a hub for multiple modes of transportation, ranging from train, bus, taxi, to park-and-ride services.

 

Deputy Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Karen Hedlund, refers to the new station as “not just a train station” in her Jun 12th blog post on U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fast Lane blog. Indeed, the new station will not only accommodate a new Amtrak passenger station with upgraded tracks and signals, better passenger rail siding and improved passenger rail platforms, but also an underground railroad museum and the historical site of the former U.S. Customs House.

 

The Niagara Falls station is situated on the route from Buffalo, NY to Toronto, Ontario. The new station is located conveniently in downtown, between Main Street and Whirlpool street, close to Whirlpool Bridge and the U.S. Custom House.

 

"Its location is key,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) in a press release. “This new train station is going to bring people downtown."

"Why is it that so many people travel to Niagara Falls, Canada, and don't come to Niagara Falls, New York? Those days are over," said Rep. Brian Higgins, (D-NY-26) said in the same press release.

The project has received funding from multiple sources. While over 80% of the cost of the $25-million project comes from federal funding, New York State has contributed 10%. It will be the first high-speed rail station in New York state to receive the TIGER II (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery II) grant from the Federal government.

Mayor Paul Dyster said the project is expected to create 200 full-time equivalent jobs in the construction sector. Construction will begin weeks later. The city’s senior planner, Thomas J. DeSantis, said the project may be completed by 2015.

The project will, as pointed out by Progressive Railroading, “mark a new chapter in the city's efforts to ensure passenger-rail connections to Buffalo and Toronto.” However, challenges are still ahead to fix the nation’s railroad system. As Deputy Administrator Karen Hedlund wrote in the same Jun 12th post, “In too many places, we haven’t invested in the passenger rail connections travelers deserve—and that will be necessary to move up to 100 million additional people by 2050. Unless we change the way we fund rail transportation, we won’t be able to support more projects like this one in the future.”

 

Governor Rick Scott is calling for an extension for public commenting on the forthcoming Federal Railroad Administration report.

On Monday, Florida Governor Rick Scott expressed his concerns to involve the local community more in a letterto Michael Reininger, the president of All Aboard Florida. All Aboard Florida will connect Miami and Orlando with West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale via frequent train service.

Scott wants to extend the already extended 75-day public comment period to 90 days. In his opinion, many families are concerned about how the trains will influence their neighborhoods.

"This additional time will allow communities more opportunity to have their specific concerns addressed, “said Scott in the letter.

 

Texas Department of Transportation will host 25 open-house meetings to openly discuss the Texas Transportation Plan 2040.

The goal of the transportation plan is to determine Texas’ future needs for infrastructure and funding. The public hearings will allow TxDOT to target prioritized areas and to develop long-term goals.

“It is always important to receive feedback from the public. This is their community and they need to have a voice in its future," said Blanca Del Valle, spokesperson for the TxDOT, to the El Paso Times

One of the needs for the discussions is the rapid growth of Texas’ population, which increases by about 1000 people each day. When the 25 open-house meetings have been held, the TxDOT will present the plan to the Texas Transportation Commission for approval.

 

A study that will improve the 141-year old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel (B&P Tunnel) enters into a new phase by expanding its public outreach.

The B&P Tunnel study is an engineering and environmental study that was launched in collaboration with the Federal Railroad Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation to analyze the improvements that can be made in modernizing the infrastructure.

“The study being undertaken today is the first step in replacing this aging infrastructure with a new tunnel that meets the increased demand for capacity and enhances the efficiency of rail operations on one of the busiest rail corridors in the world,” said Joseph C. Szabo, Federal Railroad Administrator in a press release.

So far, the B&P Tunnel is not suited for high-speed use because its tight clearances and sharp curves limit speeds to a 30-mph maximum through the tunnel. This heavily influences the traffic in the Northeast corridor, one of the busiest rail lines in the US. The replacement of the tunnel is a necessity for improving rail transportation in the Northeast Corridor, and it is the first step in bringing the high-speed railroad to Baltimore.

As this study enters into a new phase, so does the public forum for community involvement in the project. Numerous public meetings are being held during which the project team makes presentations and the public can ask questions. In addition, interested citizens can provide feedback on the study on the project website.

 

New York passengers traveling for treatment of life-threatening medical conditions now qualify for a discount under the Empire Service Rails to Recovery Program.

Amtrak Empire Service trains, in partnership with NYSDOT and Voices of Hope, will offer Buy One - Get One Free discounts to passengers and their families who have registered on the Voices of Hopewebsite. Successful registration will direct passengers to Amtrak’s website where they can book their train tickets and receive the discount.

New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald said in a press release,“By discounting train fares for these important trips, we ensure that families have an affordable travel option that relieves the burden of traveling by car during a stressful time."

 

Travel Advisories

- A commencement event will affect the Pacific Surfliner Train 777 on Saturday, June 14, only. See www.amtrak.com/alerts for details.

 

From the NARP Blog

Amtrak Bicylce Task Force: Bringing Bikes on Board: As a leader in intercity passenger rail development, NARP has long understood that transportation works best when different modes work well together.  By smoothing the seams between transportation systems, you showcase the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of each individual mode. So NARP was very excited when we were invited to join the Amtrak Bicycle Task Force… [Read more]

Young Advocates Testify in Support of California High Speed Rail: In the debate surrounding the California High Speed Rail Project, one perspective that hasn’t been given much weight is that of younger generations. Stepping back, this is strange. After all, they’ll be the ones who get the most use from the train. They’ll be the ones paying back the infrastructure bonds that California’s voters approved in 2008. And they’ll be the ones that are negatively impacted if nothing gets built… [Read more]