Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

House Rejects Bid to End Amtrak Funding

September 8, 2017

A bid to end Amtrak funding was rejected by the House this week.

Alabama Republican Mo Brooks offered an amendment to a spending bill that would have ended $1.1 billion in federal funding of the national passenger carrier in fiscal year 2018.

The amendment failed on a 128-293 bi-partisan vote. Brooks had sought to portray Amtrak funding as unnecessary.

“[W]hat policy justification is there for forcing Americans who don’t use Amtrak to subsidize the travel of Americans who do use Amtrak? I know of none,” he said during the debate.

The chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee, Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), shot back that the end Amtrak funding amendment would be “counterproductive,” because eliminating Amtrak’s federal subsidies would result in higher costs.

“This bill is not just arbitrary decisions,” he said. “You see, we held hearings. And we carefully scrubbed each account to make sure that the reductions that we made were responsible and that were actually going to result in reductions. This is not the right way to do it. It is not prudent to eliminate an entire transportation option, by the way.”

Brooks attempted to argue that Amtrak passengers do not but should be forced to pay the full costs of operating the trains. But that argument failed to gain traction.

The House is expected to approve a three-month funding bill for FY 2018 this week and seek to adopt a long-term budget plan by the end of the year.

Failure to approve the budget bill could result in a federal government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Political observers expect Amtrak’s long-distance trains to survive the budget process, but how much money the carrier will receive still must be worked out.

The House has proposed spending $1.1 billion for the national network while the Senate favor  $1.24 billion. Amtrak is likely to receive an amount somewhere between the two.

Amtrak is funded through the Department of Transportation budget, which has been rolled into the omnibus spending bill that the House is considering this week

The Senate has not approved any appropriations bills, but is expected to use the House bill as a basis for negotiating in a conference committee.

The House also has approved $500 million for a federal-state partnership to bring passenger rail infrastructure into a state of good repair. Amtrak could apply for grants under that program.

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DOT Taking TIGER Grant Applications

September 8, 2017

The U.S. Department of Transportation is taking applications for its TIGER grant program.

The program has $500 million set aside that will be awarded on a competitive basis for projects that have a significant impact on the United States, a metropolitan area or a region.

Federal legislation recently approved by Congress mandates that TIGER grants must be between $5 million and $25 million with the minimum for rural areas set at $1 million.

The selection criteria remain about the same as in previous years, DOT officials said.

However, the 2017 TIGER program will afford special consideration to projects that emphasize improved access to transportation for rural communities.

TIGER applications are due Oct. 16. DOT will hold webinars on Sept. 13 and Sept. 19 to provide technical assistance for grant applicants.

Since the TIGER program was established in 2009, DOT has awarded $5.1 billion for capital investments in surface transportation programs.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed ending the TIGER program in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

Harrison, Shippers Continue Sniping Over Service Issues

August 21, 2017

CSX and its shippers continued their war of words last week with the shippers seeking an investigation of service and CSX head E. Hunter Harrison accusing the shippers of trying to use service issues as a platform on which to promote a political agenda that has little to nothing to do with current conditions.

The Rail Customer Coalition, an umbrella group for nearly four dozen trade associations representing manufacturing, agricultural, energy and retail industries, wants the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and Congress to intervene.

“With service disruptions continuing to mount and no solution in sight, our members need decisive action from Congress and the STB,” the Rail Customer Coalition wrote to the leaders of the Senate commerce committee and House transportation committee.

Contained within the letter, though was a plea for the STB to write and implement new rules to enable certain captive shippers to obtain reciprocal switching.

That demand did not go unnoticed at CSX headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida. Noting that the shipper group did not come to CSX before going to federal officials in Washington, Harrison countered in a letter to the shippers that that was because “most likely  . . . your statements were made to advance your longstanding attack on the balanced approaches of the Staggers Act.”

As he has in the past, Harrison continued to insist that shippers will benefit from the precision scheduled railroading operating plan that he has been implementing at CSX.

Harrison also described the coalition’s assertions about poor CSX service as “many unfounded and grossly exaggerated statements . . . related to the service experienced by some customers.”

Harrison acknowledged that CSX has experienced what he termed “some unfortunate disruptions to our service, which we are addressing aggressively.”

He contended that CSX is addressing customers’ concerns while it works to improve communication with shippers.

“The changes we are implementing today will deliver measurable improvements in key service metrics, resulting in our customers’ freight moving more consistently, reliably, and cost efficiently across the CSX network,” Harrison said.

But Harrison said he won’t talk with the Rail Customer Coalition. “Since coalitions do not have service issues, we do not intend to continue a discussion with you about the service we provide to our customers,” he said.

However, he added that CSX would discuss “other completely unrelated topics like reciprocal switching, which are more central to your agenda.”

Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, said the Rail Customer Coalition’s letter was the result of broad agreement from the group’s members and that shippers have communicated with CSX about service issues.

“Furthermore, these service issues have not gone away, which is evident by the fact that the Surface Transportation Board was compelled to send a second letter to CSX earlier this week expressing concerns with the ‘widespread degradation of rail service’ across its network,” Jensen says. “This is yet another example of how important it is for Congress to fill the vacancies at the STB with members that understand that business as usual is no longer working.”

In its letter to Congress, the shipper organization said that problems at CSX are beginning to ripple across the North American rail network.

“This has put rail-dependent business operations throughout the U.S. at risk of shutting down, caused severe bottlenecks in the delivery of key goods and services, and has put the health of our nation’s economy in jeopardy,” the coalition said.

However, Trains magazine reported that neither Union Pacific nor BNSF Railway have posted customer advisories regarding interchange with CSX. Neither railroad would comment on the matter.

Trains quoted railroad industry analyst Anthony B. Hatch of ABH Consulting as saying that the CSX service problems are not yet on the scale of what happened in the 1990s after Union Pacific acquired Southern Pacific.

Many of the problems at CSX are related to increasing dwell times in yards, particularly those at which hump operations have been halted in favor of flat switching.

Figures reported to the Association of American Railroads indicate that the dwell time is greater than 40 hours in eight CSX terminals.

That can result in terminal congestion, cars missing their connections and transit times ballooning in the wrong direction.

CSX terminals experiencing the most delays include Indianapolis; Nashville, Tennessee; and Montgomery, Alabama.

The average dwell time in Indianapolis has risen to 58.5 hours. Dwell times in Nashville and Montgomery are 53.5 hours and 52.6 hours respectively.

CSX Intermodal shippers are also starting to notice delays. J.B. Hunt issued an updated service advisory warning customers to expect delays of 72 hours or more at seven terminals, including Jacksonville and Tampa, Florida; Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia.; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Memphis.

The most recent figures provided to the AAR show the average CSX train speed having sunk to 18.4 mph for the week ending Aug. 11, the lowest it’s been in the past year and the fourth straight week below 20 mph. In the third quarter of 2016, CSX’s average train speed was 20.8 mph.

Ports of Indiana to Benefit From DOT Grant

August 8, 2017

The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed nearly $79 million in grants for freight-related rail, port and roadway infrastructure projects under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.

One of those grants would involve $9.85 million to the Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor for enhanced intermodal facilities with rail and truck marshaling yards projects.

Once completed, the project would allow the Ports of Indiana to increase its cargo-handling capacity.

The project includes construction of a new 2.3-acre bulk berth facility, a truck-barge-truck conveyer system, a new westside rail yard and new rail connection that will connect the port’s main terminal with the new rail yard; dockside improvements, and construction of a truck marshaling yard.

DOT sent a notice to Congress on Aug. 2, thereby starting a 60-day period during which Congress could vote to disapprove the proposed projects if it finds a project objectionable.

The proposed awards would be distributed under the Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies grant program, which the Trump administration now refers to as the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program.

DOT is accepting applications until Nov. 2 for fiscal year 2017 large projects and FY2018 large and small projects under the INFRA grants program.

House Committee Increases Some Transportation Spending

July 24, 2017

A House appropriations committee has approved a transportation spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that saves funding of Amtrak long-distance trains and increases spending on passenger rail by $360 million.

Much of the funding increase would be channeled toward fixing infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor. The bill allocates $900 million toward the Gateway program in New York and New Jersey.

However, the bill is less favorable toward funding of public transit. It cuts some funding by $662 million even as it keeps a key investment program that has funded rail transit and commuter rail projects. The TIGER grant program would also be cut.

The funding bill was approved primarily along party lines with many committee Democrats voting against it because they want to see more infrastructure spending.

But Republicans countered that adding additional funding would cause the bill to fail on the House floor.

The full House must still act on the bill while the Senate has yet to take up its own transportation spending bill. FY 2018 will begin on Oct. 1.

Congress May Delay Infrastructure Plan Until Next Year

July 24, 2017

The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan is taking a back seat to other issues before Congress, including rewriting the U.S. tax code.

Little has been done thus far to advance infrastructure and some in Congress say it might not be taken up until next year.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said, “I’d like to see infrastructure get done. But I’ve always said, that in terms of how things are sequenced, it’s more likely that they would do tax reform first. And that might push infrastructure into sometime next year.”

Thus far no legislation has been introduced reflecting the administration’s infrastructure plan, which would, presumably, providing funding for road, bridge, railway and other projects.

Moorman Stumps to Save Long-Distance Trains

June 14, 2017

Amtrak President Charles “Wick” Moorman recently told Congress that eliminating funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains in the federal fiscal year 2018 budget would cost more money than it would save.

Moorman

In a letter that accompanied Amtrak’s budget, Moorman said ending the funding would cost $423 million more than keeping it.

“The Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request for the U.S. Department of Transportation proposes the elimination of Federal funding for Amtrak’s long distance services. Enactment of such a proposal would drastically shrink the scope of our network, could cause major disruptions in existing services, and increase costs for the remaining services across the Amtrak system,” Moorman wrote. “Amtrak’s initial projection is that eliminating long distance services would result in an additional cost of $423 million in FY 2018 alone, requiring more funding from Congress and our partners rather than less.”

The letter sought to highlight Amtrak’s successes last year.

“Amtrak reported strong audited financial results for the fiscal year which ended on Sep. 30, 2016, including an all-time ticket revenue record of $2.14 billion,” Moorman said. “The increased ticket revenue was fueled by a record 31.3 million passengers on America’s Railroad – nearly 400,000 more than the previous year. This is the sixth straight year Amtrak carried more than 30 million customers.

“The company covered 94 percent of its operating costs with ticket sales and other revenues, up from 92 percent the year before – a world-class performance for a passenger-carrying railroad. Thanks in part to our strong performance, Amtrak was also able to make a net reduction in long-term debt of $69.2 million.”

As for Amtrak’s ongoing needs, Moorman said Amtrak needs funding to replace movable bridges that are more than 100 years old and money to pay for a backlog of crucial state-of-good-repair work in the Northeast Corridor estimated to cost $38 billion to complete.

Moorman said the Superliner equipment used by Amtrak’s long-distance trains averages more than 200,000 miles per car, per year, and the age of the fleet is nearly 40 years.

Congress Approves Spending for FY2017

May 6, 2017

Congress this week approved an omnibus budget bill that will fund Amtrak and other transportation programs through Sept. 30, the end of the current federal fiscal year.

Amtrak received $1.495 billion, an increase of $105 million over its fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The funding includes $328 million for the Northeast Corridor and $1.167 billion to support the national network.

Amtrak VP Thinks Status Quo Will Prevail

April 5, 2017

An Amtrak executive believes that once the dust settles in Congress on the fiscal year 2018 federal budget the status quo will prevail at Amtrak, meaning that the long-distance trains the Trump administration wants to stop funding will continue to operate.

Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner told the Future Railway Organisation seminar on March 29 that he had little immediate cause for concern over the future of Amtrak’s network.

Gardner noted that previous administrations have proposed zeroing out Amtrak, but Congress has never gone along with those plans.

The Trump “skinny budget” would continue Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and state corridor trains paid for largely by states that they serve. But funding of long-distance passenger trains would end.

“The cost and logistical complexity of removing these trains would be prohibitive, we feel,” he said. “There is a reason that they have survived through recent decades.”

Gardner said the long-distance trains play an important role in serving intermediate markets and any attempt to “go back in” in the future would cost at least $1 billion.

Noting that in 2015 Amtrak was included in the FAST surface transportation bill approved by legislation passed in Congress, that gives the national rail passenger carrier a greater degree of
institutional stability.

“The most likely outcome is that the status quo will prevail,” Gardner said.

Gardner said Amtrak is supportive of a private sector inter-city  passenger service in Florida known as Brightline and the planned Texas Central high speed project.

“Naturally , we see that as an endorsement of the rail mode, and we welcome the addition of services able to showcase the latest in rail technology,” he said.

Chao Says Infrastructure Plan Will Cut Back Regulations, House Committee Approves Passenger Rail Legislation

March 31, 2017

It’s not the money it’s the red tape. Or so Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao wants everyone to believe is the reason why more isn’t being done to rebuild America’s infrastructure.

Speaking during an open house to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Chao said the Trump Administration’s infrastructure proposal that has yet to be delivered to Congress will include proposals to eliminate regulations.

“Investors say there is ample capital available, waiting to invest in infrastructure projects,” Chao said.” So the problem is not money. It’s the delays caused by government permitting processes that hold up projects for years, even decades, making them risky investments.”

Chao said the Trump infrastructure plan “will include common-sense regulatory, administrative, organizational and policy changes that will encourage investment and speed project delivery.”

Although she did not provide details, that infrastructure proposal will include a “a strategic, targeted program of investment valued at $1 trillion over 10 years,” Chao said.

She said the proposal will cover more than transportation infrastructure. It will also include energy, water and potentially broadband and veterans hospitals.

Public-private partnerships will be a focal point of the plan as a way to avoid “saddling future generations with massive debt.”

In an unrelated development, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure this week approved a bill involving passenger rail.

The committee reported out H.R. 1346, which repeals a rule titled “Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordination and Planning Area Reform.”

In a statement, the committee said the rule exceeds what is required in law, is contrary to congressional intent, and increases burdens on MPOs and states.

The committee said H.R. 1346 maintains MPO and state flexibility in planning and making transportation investments.

Also approved was H.R. 1093, which mandates the Federal Railroad Administration to notify Congress about any initiation and results of passenger and commuter rail comprehensive safety assessments.