Posts Tagged ‘House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’

House Committee OKs Surface Transportation Bill

June 11, 2021

A Congressional House committee approved legislation this week advancing the INVEST in America Act to the House floor.

The bill  (HR 3684), is a five-year surface transportation re-authorization act that authorizes $547 million, including $95 billion for passenger and freight rail.

Of the latter figure $32 billion is set aside for Amtrak. The Rail Passengers Association said the Amtrak authorization was triple its current funding level.

The House Transportation Committee approved the bill after 17-hour markup session on a 38-26 vote.

The legislation, if approved by the House and Senate authorizes spending but does not appropriate funding.

House Dems Introduce $547B Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill

June 7, 2021

Congressional Democrats have introduced a $547 billion five year surface transportation reauthorization bill.

The proposal is 80 percent higher than a $303.5 billion bill introduced in the Senate.

The House bill, named Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act. would succeed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act that expires in late September.

The House bill is expected to be marked up by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on June 9.

Among the highlights of the bill are $109 billion for public transit, $95 billion for passenger and freight rail, and $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety.

Amtrak would receive $32 billion, tripling its funding to allow for “enhanced service, Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades, and investments to renew and support service on the Northeast Corridor and long-distance and state-supported routes.

House Committee Seeks Probe of PSR

May 17, 2021

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is seeking an investigation of the practice of precision scheduled railroading.

It has asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct the probe with a focus on how the practice has affected shippers, Amtrak, commuter railroads, employees and others.

A letter from committee chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and Donald Payne Jr. (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, asked Comptroller General Gene Dodaro to, “at a minimum,” investigate 10 aspects of the impact of PSR.

“These include the safety and service impacts of longer trains, and of reduced workforces; elimination or downsizing of yards and maintenance facilities; changes in dispatching practices; on-time performance of passenger trains; quality, availability and reliability of service to shippers; and increases in demurrage or other charges.”

The letter noted that longer trains, unhappy shippers, and a workforce pushed to do more with less is not a model to emulate “unless you’re on Wall Street.”

“But we can’t let hedge fund managers write the rules of railroading,” DeFazio said in a statement.

House Transportation Committee Leaders Named

February 7, 2021

The chairman of a Congressional committee overseeing transportation predicted last week that the COVID-19 pandemic may create lasting changes in workplace practices.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said in prepared remarks that transportation networks will need a long time to recover from the pandemic.

DeFazio spoke during a hearing held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that discussed protecting transportation workers and passengers from COVID-19 and to get organized for the current session of Congress.

“Transportation workers in particular have been hard hit by the devastating health dangers and significant financial repercussions of the public health crisis our nation continues to face,” DeFazio said.

T&I Committee Ranking Member Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri) said Congress has authorized an unprecedented $113 billion to support different transportation services, including $39 billion for transit, $10 billion for state departments of transportation and $2 billion for Amtrak.

“We need to ensure that all of this money leaves the federal government and gets to the intended recipients as soon as possible,” Graves said.

The committee also named committee heads and the ranking member for each of its six subcommittees.

Those assignments include the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, with Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-New Jersey) serving as chair and Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) as ranking member; the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, with Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia  serving as chair and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) as ranking member; and the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, with Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-California as chair and Rep. David Rouzer (R-North Carolina) as ranking member.

RPA Makes its Case. Will it Matter?

September 14, 2020

Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews last week laid out the case before a congressional committee against Amtrak’s plans to shift most of its long-distance trains to less than daily operation in October.

He testified before a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee holding an oversight hearing on Amtrak and the COVID-19 pandemic,

Last week I went inside the testimony of Amtrak William Flynn as to why Amtrak is reducing frequency of service on long-distance routes so today’s let’s go inside the counter arguments Mathews made.

First, Mathews argued Amtrak provides an essential service, particularly to communities lacking other public transportation options and to those facing cutbacks in airline service once CARES Act emergency funding for airlines expires after Sept. 30.

Mathews said Amtrak is most essential for the 62 million Americans living in “flyover territory” where a quarter of the population is veterans and another quarter is age 65 or older.

He said the pandemic has made Amtrak service more necessary for these Americans.

“Intercity rail plays an outsized role in these communities, with almost one-fifth of Amtrak’s passengers traveling to or from a rural station with no access to air service,” Mathews said.

“Long-distance trains, frequently used by senior citizens and passengers with mobility impairments, provide access to healthcare facilities that would otherwise be too expensive or difficult to reach.”

Second, Amtrak tried less-than-daily service in the 1990s and it resulted in a loss of 1.1 million passengers while failing to net the monetary savings that a consultant had projected.

Trains operating three times a week are less attractive because they may not operate when passengers want or need to travel. Connections between long-distance trains in Chicago will become difficult because they may only be available one or two days a week or not available at all.

Third, reducing long-distance service to three times a week will result in a loss of $2 billion in economic benefits.

“Rail corridors generate value by acting as economic engines in the communities they serve—through jobs, retail, mobility, tourism and real-estate development,” he said.

Mathews relied on a model developed at the University of Southern Mississippi that concluded Amtrak’s long-distance trains, excluding the Auto Train, generate $4.7 billion in economic benefits.

He said this lost economic benefit could swell to $3.1 billion if long-distance trains operate tri-weekly for a year, which would dwarf the $150 million in savings from the tri-weekly service Amtrak plans to operate.

Mathews’ testify may have been, as he described it “forceful,” but is unlikely to move the needle much if at all.

Members of Congress are accustomed to being inundated with talking points from interest groups seeking a share of public money.

In this case, Mathews wants Congress to give Amtrak nearly $5 billion for federal fiscal year 2021, which would be more than double what the passenger carrier originally sought earlier this year.

There is a long line of folks who want Congress to give them emergency aid, including countless small business owners who are on the verge of being forced out of business for good due to the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.

Public funding of some government services faces cutbacks due to plummeting revenues.

Less-than-daily Amtrak service on a small number of routes looks minor by comparison.

In a post on the RPA website that followed Mathews’ appearance on Capitol Hill, RPA Vice President of Policy Sean Jeans-Gail decried a lack of urgency on the part of Congress to act to approve additional funding for Amtrak.

“It is abundantly clear that policymakers and the public have not internalized the threat to our national transportation network,” Jeans-Gail wrote.

That could be because they don’t see the same threat that RPA sees.

Congressional leaders have signaled that another round of pandemic emergency funding is unlikely before the November elections. If so, then Amtrak’s planned service reductions are likely to go into effect as scheduled.

The Senate has yet to act on spending bills for FY2021, which begins in less than three weeks.

This scenario has played out before and typically federal spending is kept going with one or more continuing resolutions.

All of this is subject to change but if it does it likely won’t come about because of what Mathews told a congressional committee. There are larger political forces that transcend Amtrak funding, which is a mere gain of sand on a very large beach.

Going Inside Flynn’s Congress Testimony

September 11, 2020

Amtrak President William Flynn had a lot to say this week during his first appearance before Congress, which was in large part a plea for more money to overcome the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his prepared statement, Flynn said Amtrak projects it will lose $1.266 billion in ticket sales in federal fiscal year 2020, which would be 55 percent of what it earned in FY2019.

Amtrak’s recovery from the pandemic has been slow and ridership and revenue are still down more than 80 percent compared to a year ago.

“It has become clear that the pandemic’s impacts will extend through, and almost certainly beyond, FY2021 as well, and Amtrak, along with our state partners, are now working to plan for the year ahead,” he said.

You probably have read or heard by now how he said the railroad needs $4.9 billion in federal fiscal year 2021 in order to stave off its planned service cuts to all long-distance trains except the Auto Train.

But buried in his prepared remarks to the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was this comment about the economics of long-distance passenger trains:

“ . . . in normal times they cover most of the out-of-pocket costs such as fuel, commissary supplies, host railroad payments, and wages and benefits for on-board employees that are incurred by each train that operates over a route.

“Therefore, operating service three times a week rather than daily ordinarily would not produce significant and immediate cash saving.”

That, in essence, is what some critics of the Amtrak’s plans to its long-distance network on a less than daily basis have been saying all along.

So why is Amtrak reducing the scope of long-distance service?

Flynn framed it as a matter of diminished ridership and revenue.

“In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hoped that passenger demand would increase appreciably on long-distance routes during what is normally their peak summer season.”

But he said that didn’t happen because of the reluctance of the public to travel during the pandemic.

Ridership of long-distance trains in June and July, excluding the Auto Train, was down by two-thirds compared with the same months of 2019.

“The two-thirds reduction in revenues has had a major impact on long-distance financial performance,” he said.

Flynn said that the long-distance trains lost $475 million in FY 2019 and without providing specific figures said these trains “are incurring huge, additional operating losses for each train we operate –for the benefit of just a third of the normal number of passengers.

“Given that, we felt that it would be irresponsible to continue spending a much larger share of our limited funding to provide the same frequency of service for a much smaller number of remaining passengers, particularly as we entered the fall/winter season when monthly long distance ridership normally declines up to 40 percent from the summer peak.”

The Amtrak president repeatedly in his prepared remarks sought to frame the reduction in long-distance service as temporary.

“One thing I want to make absolutely clear: These long-distance frequency reductions are temporary,” Flynn said. “We are committed to continuing to operate our current long distance network and to improving the service we provide to our long distance passengers.”

He reiterated that another time when he said, “As ridership returns, we intend to restore service frequency to previous levels. We remain committed to our long distance system.”

Not everyone will take that comment at face value. Many skeptics want to believe the service cuts are part of a nefarious strategy to discontinue long-distance passenger routes in favor of corridor services that would be paid for by state and local governments.

The Rail Passengers Association and other rail passenger advocates have been trying to argue that daily operation of long-distance trains is an essential public service during the pandemic.

For now it appears that keeping all of the long-distance trains except the Cardinal and Sunset Limited – which have operated tri-weekly for years – on daily schedules hinges upon Congress giving Amtrak nearly $5 billion for FY2021.

Flynn’s prepared statement suggested that not only does Amtrak want additional money it also seems to want a mandate from Congress ordering it to keep long-distance trains operating daily.

“We will do as directed by Congress,” Flynn said. “If that $4.9 billion instructs us to rescind the furloughs and rescind the service cuts, we’ll do that.”

If no additional funding is forthcoming and Amtrak implements the long-distance train service reductions as planned, Flynn said Amtrak would evaluate ridership and revenue of those trains in February.

He recited in his statement the criteria for restoration of daily service that Amtrak proclaimed in a white paper published about a month ago.

His statement hinted that restoration of daily service would be undertaken on an individual route basis and some trains might not resume daily operation until FY2022.

“If any route is not yet ready to be restored when we conduct our [February 2021] review, we will apply an updated version of the criteria  . . . as part of our FY 2022 planning cycle or sooner, in the event of a dramatic improvement in demand prior to that point,” he said.

It is noteworthy that Flynn also said the future of Amtrak’s long-distance network hinges upon Congress providing capital funding to buy new equipment, saying the equipment used on long-distance trains is more than 40 years old and has reached the end of its useful life.

That equipment must be replaced “if we are to maintain current long-distance service.”

Flynn also called on Congress to give Amtrak the legal tools to argue that passenger trains deserve preference in dispatching over freight trains.

“The greatest threat to the future of our long-distance network is not COVID-19, but rather poor on-time performance that diminishes the value of these services to our customers,” he said.

“The leading cause of delays to our long distance trains is the failure of some of our host railroads to comply with this longstanding legal obligation to provide Amtrak trains with preference over their tracks.”

Amtrak’s host railroads, of course, would have a different view of the matter, but conflict with its host railroads has been going for decades and figures to last a long time.

Flynn was optimistic about Amtrak’s future, but didn’t present much of a vision as to what he sees as the role of intercity rail passenger in America.

Missing from his comments was the sometimes strident and caustic tone that his predecessor, Richard Anderson, sometimes displayed.

He touched on how long-distance trains lose money without dwelling on those losses or villifying those trains. At the same time his commitment to the long-distance network was less a ringing endorsement than a description of something that Amtrak does.

It was, of course, just the first of what are likely to be many statements that Flynn will make to Congress so we should probably avoid reading too much into this statement, which also was delivered under some of the most adverse circumstances any Amtrak head has faced.

As always, though, the fate of Amtrak is up to Congress.



Amtrak Wants $4.9B for FY2021

September 10, 2020

Amtrak has named its price of keeping long distance trains running daily and preventing employee furloughs: $4.9 billion.

William Flynn

Amtrak President told a congressional committee on Wednesday that Amtrak would need that much in federal fiscal year 2021 to avoid service cuts and job furloughs.

Flynn told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Rail Subcommittee that Amtrak is experiencing a “cash burn” of nearly $250 million a month right now.

Without supplemental funding, Flynn said Amtrak “would have to make very dramatic reductions across the company to stave off bankruptcy.”

Those would include even more substantial service cuts than it has already imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the planned reductions in frequency of most long-distance trains to tri-weekly operation in October.

Flynn said some long-distance trains would cease operating “if that’s the cash burn we’re having with no supplemental funding.”

During his testimony, Flynn argued that Amtrak generates a surplus in the Northeast Corridor and breaks even on state-funded corridor service but loses money on long-distance trains.

“So the vast majority, if not all, of that subsidy, if we were to do it on a service line basis, would be on the long-distance service,” Flynn said.

Flynn faced sharp criticism from some committee members over such things as Amtrak’s plans to reinstate making contributions to the 401K plans of top managers effective Oct. 1 and a request for proposals for communications services that would allow bidders to shift jobs outside the United States.

The Amtrak president defended the 401K contributions as necessary to keep key employees from leaving the company, but agreed to withdraw the request for proposals that would allow offshoring.

Committee Chair Dan Lipinski also rebuked Amtrak for not submitting a supplemental appropriations request to Congress for FY2021 until this week.

He noted that congressional staffers have been asking Amtrak since June to no avail for a figure of how much it would take to prevent the service cuts to long-distance trains and avoid employee furloughs.

Lipinski noted that the next federal fiscal year begins in less than a month.

Earlier this year Amtrak sought $2.04 billion for FY2021. In late May the passenger carrier told Congress it would need another $1.4 billion to avoid service cuts.

However, that supplemental request was based on the premise that most long-distance trains would operate less than daily starting in October.

In the meantime, a budget for FY2021 adopted by the House includes $10 billion for Amtrak with a mandate to keep the long-distance trains operating daily.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, said in his prepared statement that reducing the frequency of operation of long-distance trains to three times a week would result in a $2 billion economic loss to the communities served by those trains.

Mathews’ figures were based on a model developed in part by Transportation 4 America.

RPA has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has depressed Amtrak revenue by 83 percent compared with the same period last year and that travel on all modes of public transportation has fallen precipitously.

But Mathews contended that Amtrak service is essential, particularly in some of the smaller communities the intercity passenger carrier serves.

Flynn also said during his testimony that Amtrak has no plans to furlough workers at its Beech Grove shops located near Indianapolis.

He said Amtrak had to hire additional workers at Beech Grove after some employees took a buyout offer.

Committee To Discuss Amtrak Service

September 9, 2020

A congressional committee will hear testimony today on Amtrak’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its plans to reduce frequency of service on most long-distance trains to three times a week.

The hearing is being held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

It is slated to start at 11 a.m. and will be carried live on the committee’s YouTube Channel.

Amtrak President William Flynn is expected to testify along with Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association.

RPA and other rail passenger advocates have opposed the plan to reduce the frequency of service of long-distance trains and Mathews told the group’s members in an email message this week that his testimony will seek to show that daily operation of those trains is good for the U.S. economy.

In the meantime, a report posted on a railfan chat list showed an Amtrak document that has downward projections of ridership in federal fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

Amtrak now expects ridership in the Northeast Corridor to be 34 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

The carrier projects that state-funded corridor ridership will be 41 percent of pre-pandemic levels and long-distance ridership will be 35 percent.

Amtrak said it will need $5 billion in operating support for the fiscal year and another $5 billion in capital funding for equipment purchases and debt service.

GOP House Members Releases Their Own Surface Transportation Authorization Legislation

June 20, 2020

Republican members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have introduced their own surface transportation reauthorization bill to compete with one introduced earlier by Democrats.

The GOP bill, has been named the Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform, Technology, & Efficient Review Act.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), the ranking GOP member of the House Transportation Committee, described the Democratic bill, named Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act, as a nonstarter.

Graves said the GOP proposal is a five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill that reflects Republican surface transportation principles.

The STARTER bill was initially introduced as an amendment during the committee markup sessions on the INVEST bill.

Graves said the INVEST bill is unlikely to win Senate approval, a chamber dominated by Republicans.

He said his vote against the INVEST bill was the first time in my 20 years on the committee that he had opposed a transportation reauthorization bill.

Political observers say neither the INVEST or STARTER bills is likely to be signed into law and are merely opening proposals and political posturing that will precede negotiations between the House and Senate over the final bill.

Whatever legislation emerges from that process and is sent to the White House is likely to be quiet different than what is contained in INVEST or STARTER.

What is likely to occur is each chamber will approve its own surface transportation bill and differences will be worked out in a conference committee.

House Committee to Begin Marking Up Proposed Surface Transportation Renewal Bill Next Week

June 16, 2020

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will begin marking up the proposed Environment and Surface Transportation Act on June 17.

H.R. 7095 calls for $494 billion over five years, including $411 billion over five years out of the Highway Trust Fund for highway, transit, safety and research programs, a 46 percent increase over current spending levels.

About $105 billion would be allocated for transit programs under the Federal Transit Administration and $60 billion for commuter rail, Amtrak and other high-performance rail programs.

The legislation was developed by committee Democrats and committee Republicans are expected to oppose the bill.