Hotline #871 -- July 18, 2014

The Senate appears on track to pass the House’s short-term Highway Trust Fund fix, having fallen short in an attempt to come up with an alternate proposal. While the 10-month fix has been widely criticized for yet again “kicking the can down the road,” it appears to be the most likely way forward in averting a trust fund collapse that would leave 700,000 construction workers out of a job.

The House plan—which fails to expand eligibility for passenger train projects—would subsidize highway spending with $11 billion in revenue from various budgetary maneuvers, primarily “pension smoothing.” The revenue will only fund the HTF through May of 2015.

“[Pension smoothing] lets companies with defined benefit retirement plans assume higher interest rates when calculating how much money they need to contribute for their employees’ retirement,” explain CQ Roll Call’s Emma Dumain and David Harrison. “That reduces their required contributions into the plans and, in turn, raises the amount of taxes they owe, bringing new revenue to the federal government.”

However, companies are still on the hook to provide those pension contributions further down the line, thereby lowering future tax revenue.

NARP will continue the fight for inclusion of passenger trains in a comprehensive surface transportation fund during the next round of talks—which appear to be set for just a few short months away.

 

Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman expressed his commitment to keeping the Southwest Chief alive during his whistle-stop tour along the threatened route starting last Friday.

“I am committed to delivering this service the way it was established,” Boardman told the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle on Saturday, the second day of his weekend tour. “Our stakeholders,  whether they be in Raton, whether they be in the Trinidad area, whether they’re La Junta, [Colorado] or Dodge City, [Kansas] or anywhere else on this alignment, that’s what we think needs to be done and we’re sticking with it. “

As prefaced in last week’s hotline, Boardman met with local officials along the route in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. He was joined at various points along the way by BNSF CEO Matt Rose, New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, and New Mexico Department of Transportation Cabinet Secretary Tom Church.

Several officials stated their strong support of the Southwest Chief, including Heinrich, who said he is working with New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and other senators to help keep the train on track.

 

A potentially crippling strike by Long Island Rail Road workers was narrowly avoided yesterday through the intervention of New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, allowing railroad management and unions to finally strike a deal.

The strike would have begun Sunday, when 5,400 railway workers planned to walk off the job. Given the ridership of LIRR – at 300,000 passengers per day -- the strike would have cost the state about $50 million in lost economic activity per day. Companies braced themselves, expecting employees and patrons alike to be stuck on gridlocked highways.

After a four-year-long contract battle, the proposed pact offers LIRR workers a 17 percent raise over six and a half years, but workers will have to pay for health care for the first time.

"Compromise by definition means neither side gets everything that they wanted to get," Cuomo said at a press conference yesterday. "But it means we reached an agreement and we can move forward."

 

The Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD) moved ahead this week on the Central Rail Extension as part of its expansive rail construction project, FasTracks.

On Tuesday, the RTD board of directors approved the $207-million project that will extend the current southeast rail line, providing a “direct rail ride with no transfers from the future 38th/Blake Station on the East Rail Line into downtown Denver,” according to Progressive Railroading.

Funding for the project hasn’t been confirmed, but RTD says it will put forward $66 million, and local governments in the southeastern Denver region have agreed to invest $35 to $40 million. According to the Denver Business Journal, this show of local support puts the project on track to receive the federal funding it needs through the Federal Transit Administration.

The Central Rail Extension study, which will determine crucial details of the future line, is expected to be completed late this year.

 

Missouri residents will vote next month on a transportation funding measure that would mandate $5 billion for transportation in return for a 0.75 percent increase in sales tax for the next ten years.

Although resurfacing and repairing bridges and roads are listed at the top the Missouri Department of Transportation’s funding priorities, the measure would have an impact on several non-highway projects.

According to TheNewspaper.com:

In the central region, every transit project would receive $5.4 million to expand service hours. On top of this, Boone County would receive $10.5 million will add two hours to bus service hours. At a cost of $8 million, Jefferson City will get four more bus hours, and the Amtrak station will get $5 million for renovations. Another $5 million would improve Amtrak rail service in Osage.

"For the first time ever, the state would support major funding not just for highways and bridges but also for special transportation needs and opportunities in cities like ours," St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay told TheNewspaper.com.

The measure will appear on the August 5 primary election ballot.

 

Starting from October 1, service on Metrolink’s popular San Bernandino commuter line in California will be cut back, resulting in two less mid-day and two less late-night trains.

This change affects the following trains: Train 310 (leaves L.A.’s Union Station at 12:20 p.m.), Train 327 (leaves San Bernardino at 2 p.m.), Train 338 (leaves L.A.’s Union Station at 11 p.m.) and Train 339 (leaves San Bernardino at 9:05 p.m.).

The removal of these trains came down to funding; the San Bernardino Associated Government was the only funding agency that did not comply with Metrolink’s request to increase funding to 8.8 percent, agreeing only to a 3% increase. SanBAG executive director Ray Wolfe said that despite trying to avoid service cuts, the agency was forced to eliminate four trains, so they chose the four with the lowest ridership.

Metrolink passengers can find more information on how this will affect their commute here.

 

News in Brief

- Florida East Coast Railway unveiled a 43-acre, state-of-the-art intermodal container transfer facility on Monday, which will increase the railway’s freight capacity from 100,000 to 450,000 lifts a year. It will also ease the movement of domestic and international cargo between ships and rail, allow the FEC to build 9,000-foot unit trains without blocking city streets and expedite the overall movement of cargo in the region.

- A petition calling for nighttime and weekend service on SunRail has gained over 1,500 signatures and is now appearing on change.org. David Porter of SunRailRiders.com began the petition in hopes of extending service to accommodate people who don’t work traditional hours. NARP posted the petition on our Facebook page earlier this week.

 

Travel advisories

- Lincoln Service will be busing passengers on July 20 and 21 between Bloomington-Normal and St. Louis due to track work. According to Amtrak.com/Alerts, delays are possible through November 15, 2014.

 

From the NARP Blog

The Trans-Siberian Railway and BAM: Not as Alien as One Might Think: In a truly all-encompassing dialogue on train travel, one way or another the conversation is sure to pass by the Trans-Siberian Railway. This is because it is, with its 5,772-mile span, the longest railroad in the world, spanning over seven time zones. It is also considered one of the most… [Read more]