Posts Tagged ‘Senate Commerce Committee’

Senate Committee Puts Brakes on Amtrak’s Expansive Vision

June 21, 2021

Last week the Senate Commerce Committee approved its own version of a new surface transportation authorization act.

The bill, known as the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021, would replace the FAST Act, which is set to expire on Sept. 30.

What is noteworthy about the Senate bill is how it differs in one key area from a House surface transportation bill approved two weeks ago by a House transportation committee.

Although it boosts transportation funding generally and Amtrak funding in particular, the Senate bill would authorize far less money for both areas than the House bill.

That’s a critical point because much of the much ballyhooed Amtrak service expansion plans are premised on Congress approving a dedicated funding program to pay for that expansion.

The House bill does that but not so the Senate bill.

Before getting into the details about that, let’s get straight that both bills authorize spending but do not appropriate it. Those are separate processes and although they are related.

Think of the surface transportation bill as setting spending priorities that Congress will, presumably, follow.

As for those spending priorities, the Senate bill would authorize just 36 percent of what the House bill would authorize.

The Senate bill increased transportation funding for freight and passenger rail, but not as much as the House bill.

Over the five-year life of the Senate bill, transportation funding would be authorized at $34.2 billion. The current FAST Act level is $14.3 billion.

Missing from the Senate bill is the funding authorization for the grant program that Amtrak plans to use to develop its new corridor services.

The House bill would provide $25 billion for that while the Senate bill provides nothing.

Also in the House bill is $25 billion for grants for bridges, tunnels and stations. The Senate bill has no authorized funding for that grant program.

Senate authorizations for Amtrak funding in Senate bill are lower than in the House bill.

The Senate would authorize $6.6 billion for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and $10.7 billion for the passenger carrier’s national network.

The House bill figures are $13.5 billion for the Northeast Corridor and $18.5 billion for the national network.

The Rail Passengers Association asserted on its website that the authorizations in the Senate bill will be “inadequate to meaningfully add or upgrade new service beyond a handful of routes.”

That, though, may be the point of the Senate bill. It may be a statement from the Senate Commerce Committee that support for a massive spending spree to expand intercity rail passenger service lacks political support in that chamber.

It remains to be seen what will happen once both bills reach the floor of their respective chambers.

There may be amendments offered in both chambers to increase or lower individual line item authorizations.

It seems likely that a conference committee will need to work out the differences between the two competing surface transportation authorization bills.

If the two chambers are unable to resolve their differences, that might lead to yet another one year extension of the FAST Act as happened last year. Some congressional observers believe it might happen this year, too.

Spending authorizations can be highly contentious and subject to partisan differences.

That brings up another noteworthy difference between the House and Senate surface transportation authorization bills.

The Senate bill passed out of committee with bi-partisan, although not unanimous support. The House bill was more of a partisan creation.

The Senate bill does contain a number of clauses that can be interpreted as pro-passenger rail.

These include mandates, for example, that Amtrak maintain a ticket agent at stations averaging 40 or more passengers a day.

Amtrak is also being directed by the Senate bill to provide a host of additional information about a variety of issues including any plans to change the operations of long-distance or other routes.

There is also language in the bill describing the importance of Amtrak service to rural America.

These mandates appear to reflect a likelihood of Congressional support for continuing funding of Amtrak service as it exists today with, perhaps, some modest service increases and enhancements.

The Senate committee, though, did not support the type of far-reaching and expansive additions to the Amtrak network envisioned by the carrier’s Amtrak Connect US plan.

What it all means is that despite the happy talk emanating from rail passenger advocacy groups about how intercity passenger rail service is on the verge of a transformational moment that is not a sure thing.

A lot of things are going to have fall into place and what happened last week in the Senate does not necessarily bode well for that process playing out the way some want to see it develop.

Senate Committee OKs Transportation Bill

June 18, 2021

A five-year $78 billion surface transportation authorization bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee this week.

The Surface Transportation Investment Act authorizes $25 billion for Amtrak and $28 billion for transportation construction grants.

It also includes $2 billion a year for a new program for major projects of national significance; $1.5 billion a year for Rebuilding America Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity); $1.2 billion for freight-focused Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants; and $7.5 billion for rail-related safety projects and increases funding for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grants.

The bill was approved by the committee on a 25-3 vote.

The committee turned aside a proposal by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) that the legislation propose a goal that Amtrak become financially self-sustaining.

In response, Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) said that although improved Amtrak service could lead to “a lot of economic growth and opportunity . . . without subsidies, it’s done.”

Buttigieg Pledges to be 2nd Biggest Rail Enthusiast

January 24, 2021

Secretary of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg said during his confirmation hearing this week before a Senate committee that he will be the second biggest passenger rail enthusiast in the Biden administration.

Pete Buttigieg

The biggest passenger rail enthusiast would be President Joseph Biden, who is well known for having commuted to Washington on Amtrak during his time in the Senate.

“As a mayor from the industrial Midwest, I will bring a bottom-up perspective on transportation programs and funding,” Buttigieg said.

“If confirmed, I look forward to working with our partners at the state, local, territorial, and tribal levels to find solutions to our infrastructure issues while we also prepare for the future of transportation at a time of great change.”

During the hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, some committee members pressed Buttigieg to favor their pet rail projects.

Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker invited Buttigieg to visit his state to talk about restoration of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.

Amtrak has been absent from that region of the country since 2005 when the Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited was suspended following Hurricane Katrina.

Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal pressed Buttigieg to commit to providing federal funding to complete the Gateway Program to replace and rebuild tunnels under the Hudson River that link New York City and New Jersey.

The 111-year-old tunnels were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Buttigieg lacks a transportation industry background but as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he offered support for a project about to get underway to add double track to the South Shore Commuter line that links that South Bend and Chicago.

As mayor he also supported proposals to extend the South Shore to downtown South Bend and to establish quiet zones on Norfolk Southern and Canadian National routes in the city.

Buttigieg, who is expected to win Senate confirmation, spoke of the economic power of transportation investment, and signaled his intent to make the DOT less auto-centric.

“There are so many ways that people get around, and I think often we’ve had an auto-centric view that has forgotten, historically, about all of the other different modes,” he said.

“We want to make sure anytime we’re doing a street design that it enables cars, and bicycles, and pedestrians and any other modes—and businesses—to co-exist in a positive way, and we should be putting funding behind that.”

One of Buttigieg’s signature transportation efforts as mayor was to push for South Bend to adopt a “Smart Streets” initiative to bolster development of downtown.

This involved redesigning streets to add bike lanes and reduce vehicle lanes as well as working with the private sector to create economic development partnerships.

Buttigieg spoke about his love of Amtrak travel, including trips aboard the Lake Shore Limited during his college years.

 “I enjoy long train trips as well as short ones, and I think Americans ought to be able to enjoy the highest standard of passenger rail service,” he said.

Amtrak Predicts 72% Ridership Drop in FY2021

October 22, 2020

Amtrak now expects ridership in federal fiscal year 2021 to be 72 percent below what it was in FY 2019.

Speaking before the Senate Commerce Committee, Amtrak CEO William Flynn said the passenger carrier expects to carry 9 million passengers in the current fiscal year. In FY 2019 Amtrak handled 32.5 million passengers.

In earlier statements, Flynn had projected the carrier would handle just half of its normal ridership in FY 2021.

Even the more pessimistic ridership numbers that Flynn presented this week are based on the assumption that by mid 2021 there will be an effective and widely distributed vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

He acknowledged that this scenario “is not a guaranteed outcome.”

Amtrak and other public carriers, including airlines, have attributed massive ridership plunges to the COVID-19 pandemic depressing the market for travel, particularly business travel.

Flynn testified that in April daily ridership nosedived to 4,000 daily riders. This week it had rebounded to 17,000 per day, but before the pandemic it had been 80,000 per day.

Amtrak has said that preliminary figures show that in FY 2020 ridership has fallen by 97 percent and revenue by 53 percent.

Flynn said Amtrak revenue under the 9 million passengers for FY 2021 scenario would be $598 million. In FY 2019 Amtrak earned $2.4 billion.

He implored the committee to support granting Amtrak $2.8 billion in emergency aid by December.

Otherwise, Flynn said, Amtrak will have to delay capital projects and cut 2,400 more jobs.

Amtrak also has asked Congress to grant it $4.9 billion in FY 2021. The carrier had asked back in February for $2 billion for the 2021 budget year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Earlier this month Amtrak scaled back operation of all long-distance trains except the Auto Train to three times a week and furloughed 2,000 workers or about 10 percent of its workforce.

Flynn sought to frame those service reductions and staff furloughs as necessary to avoid deficit spending of up to $250 million a month in cash.

“At this rate of cash depletion, Amtrak would be forced to take even more drastic measures with long-lasting impacts on our company, our employees, and our network,” Flynn said.

Noting that emergency aid and additional appropriations from Congress has not been forthcoming, Flynn told the committee, “We must be prudent and address the situation at hand.”

Congress granted Amtrak $1 billion in emergency aid in March as part of the CARES Act, but Flynn said most of that money has since been spent and without additional assistance Amtrak faces the prospect of being forced into bankruptcy.

Some committee members expressed sharp criticism about Amtrak’s reducing the service levels of its long-distance trains.

 “Part of the skepticism that occurs at least with me, and maybe my colleagues, is that previous CEOs of Amtrak were less committed to long-distance passenger service,” said Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas).

 “So when the three-day [operation] arrives it raises concerns that this is another circumstance in which we’re just being played, that this is the continued effort to eliminate or significantly diminish the service.”

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi., noted that Amtrak’s “temporary suspension” of The Sunset Limited along the Gulf Coast has lasted 15 years.

Nos. 1 and 2 were suspended between New Orleans and Orlando in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Senator Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said, “We don’t want to see what the chairman’s talking about — some incident that basically sets a course where service is curtailed and then it takes you 15 years to get it re-established.”

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) expressed concern that in the absence of daily train service the public would choose other travel modes and may not return to Amtrak when full service is restored.

Flynn insisted, as he did in a House committee hearing in September, that Amtrak had no intention of making the service reductions permanent.

He said Amtrak would evaluate ridership and finances in February and might begin to restore daily service in May “when financially possible.”

Amtrak is not the only transportation-related agency seeking emergency funding from Congress.

Public transit agencies have asked for $36 billion, privately-owned school bus and motorcoach companies want $15 billion, airports are seeking $10 billion, and airlines have requested $25 billion.

Amtrak Board Nominees Move to Senate Floor

May 23, 2020

Three nominees for seats on the Amtrak board of directors were approved by a Senate committee this week on a 14-12 party line vote.

Their nominations have been sent to the Senate floor for confirmation.

The nominations of Joseph Gruters, Lynn Westmoreland and Rick Dearborn had been languishing for months.

That action followed the Trump administration naming two additional nominees for the Amtrak board, Chris Koos and Sarah E. Feinberg.

Ranking Senate Commerce Committee minority member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) opposed the advancement of Gruters, Westmoreland and Dearborn because they did not have bi-partisan support.

“These nominees, in my opinion, are controversial and have not appeared before this committee in the current Congress,” she said. “Further, they have been on committee markups multiple times only to advance on party-line votes. I hope that we can continue to work through these issues and questions on a more bipartisan basis.”

Westmoreland is a former Congressman who was nominated in October of 2017.

While in Congress he voted in 2009 and 2015 to end all Amtrak funding.

During his confirmation hearings, Westmoreland said he now understood the importance of government funding to Amtrak.

Dearborn is a former member of the Heritage Foundation, which has consistently called for the elimination of Amtrak.

An earlier nomination of another former Congressman, Todd Rokita, has yet to be resubmitted to the Senate.

Rokita voted a number of times in favor of amendments to slash or eliminate Amtrak funding.

Koos is the mayor of Normal, Illinois, while Feinberg formerly served as administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Previous moves to advance Amtrak board nominees to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote were stymied by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) who objected to Amtrak’s efforts to separate the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief into two separate trains connected by a bus service between western Kansas and Albuquerque.

Amtrak Board Nominee Says Rights Things in Hearing

July 28, 2019

A former Indiana Congressman who has been nominated by the Trump administration to serve on Amtrak’s board of directors has his day before a Senate committee this week and as expected he said all of the right things.

Todd Rokita spoke of riding Amtrak trains many times and said he favored a robust passenger train system.

He also was grilled about the times that he voted while a member of Congress in favor of amendments to cut Amtrak funding.

Rokita sought to explain those votes away by saying, “I believe in fiscal responsibility and my vote sent a message.”

The remarks came during a hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

In response to a question from Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) about whether he would be a fierce backer of Amtrak, Rokita replied that funding of the rail service was up to Congress and his job would be to make sure it was spent wisely. He said his priority would be to improve on-time performance and track safety.

“We don’t need to beat the airlines but to improve “frequency and consistency,” he said.

The committee did not vote on Rokita’s nomination, which is opposed by the Rail Passengers Association.

Nominated in May, Rokita was introduced to the committee Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana), who also serves on the commerce committee and served with Rokita in the House.

Young described Rokita as having “a personal passion for transportation.”

Rokita said he has ridden several times on Amtrak’s Cardinal and Hoosier State.

“I’ve been an Amtrak passenger my whole life, riding the Cardinal from Wabash College (in Crawfordsville) home to Munster,” he said. “And I’ve have ridden the Northeast Corridor routes often while in Congress.”

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker ( R-Mississippi), asked Rokita if he favored eliminating any Amtrak routes.

In response Rokita said keeping a national system was a priority and he had “no preconceived notions to eliminate anything.”

Rokita served in the House from 2011-2019 and is now general counsel for Apex Benefits, a consulting firm in Indianapolis.

Senators Back Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

May 17, 2018

Some senators went to bat this week for Amtrak’s long-distance trains during a hearing on the nomination of Joe Gruters to the carrier’s board of directors.

During the hearing before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi ) invited Gruters to join him on a trip aboard the City of New Orleans between McComb, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, so he could see the number of people who depend on the train.”

Gruters said he would “welcome the opportunity to ride a train with you for a couple hours.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) used the hearings to express their concerns that Amtrak will seek to discontinue the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

They criticized Amtrak’s decision to withhold a $3 million match from a recently-approved $16 million TIGER grant won by Colfax County, New Mexico, that is to be used to repair the tracks used by the Chief in Northern New Mexico.

“In my view, Amtrak has reneged on what it committed to do … and I believe federal agencies have an obligation to behave with integrity; I don’t see that at the moment,” Moran said.

He read excerpts from an email written by former Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman that charged that Amtrak is seeking to end the train and submitted the entire email for the record.

“This suggests to me that there may be a change of attitude and approach at the Amtrak board and its senior leadership that would be contrary to the congressional mandate about national rail passenger service,” Moran said.

Gardner asked Gruther if, as an Amtrak board member, he would make sure Amtrak followed through on its commitments while accusing Amtrak of not doing so.

He based those accusations on a letter of support for the TIGER grant that Amtrak submitted in October 2017.

Gardner also submitted a Rail Passengers Association statement pointing out that the Southwest Chief’s ridership is up 14 percent from eight years ago.

Wicker also joined ranking minority committee member Bill Nelson (D-Florida) in expressing their desire to see Amtrak return to the Gulf Coast.

Gruters, who owns a public accounting firm in Sarasota, Florida, acknowledged having heard from officials and residents of many Florida communities in support of such service.

[Amtrak board members] “have a fiduciary responsibility to the company but we have our mission set forth by Congress, so I will look forward to working with your team to make sure agreements are upheld and we do the right thing at the end of the day.” Gruters said.

Moran also was critical of Amtrak’s decision to close its ticket office in Topeka, Kansas.

“You cannot reduce service and expect customers to arrive at your doors, and Amtrak is demonstrating that in my view in both instances,” he said.

Some senators, including Maria Cantwell, (D-Washington), used the hearing to trumpet support for positive train control.

Gruters said PTC “is the baseline standard we need to work up to.”

All but one member of the current Amtrak board lacks railroad experience. Member Jeffrey Moreland led the public affairs and legal departments at BNSF.

Like most Amtrak board members, Gruters is a political appointee who helped lead the presidential election campaign for Donald Trump in 2016.

STB Nominees Win Senate Committee OK

April 28, 2018

Two nominees for seats on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board were approved this week by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The appointments of Patrick Fuchs and Michelle Schultz will now move to the full Senate for confirmation. If confirmed, each would serve a five year term on the STB.

Fuchs is a senior staff member working on surface transportation and maritime issues for the Senate Commerce Committee. He also has served as a policy analyst and Presidential Management Fellow at the Office of Management and Budget, where he managed railroad and maritime regulatory reviews.

Schultz is a deputy general counsel at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. Before that, she was an associate with a Philadelphia law firm.

STB Nominees Seek to Be Neutral at Hearing

April 12, 2018

The two nominees for seats on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee this week and sought to deflect pointed questions they were asked about STB policies.

Patrick J. Fuchs, a former Commerce Committee staff member, and Michelle A. Schultz, deputy general counsel for the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, are Republicans who recently were nominated to STB seats by the Trump administration .

Among the questions was one by Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) about Amtrak’s statutory right of preference over freight traffic.

“The law says Amtrak has preference over freight transportation using a rail line. You talked about statutory directives. Do you agree [preference] is a statutory directive?” Wicker asked. “In reality freight railroads have consistently denied such preference to Amtrak.”

Noting that a federal appellate court has struck down one effort to regulate on-time performance, Fuchs said, “Reasonable terms and conditions are case-specific, dependent on a particular route. “I would be hesitant to make a sweeping statement. I would evaluate any case that came before the board from a fair and open perspective.”

Both nominees in their prepared statements and in answers to questions sought to paint themselves as neutral and impartial.

“I believe both in the importance of the board’s responsibilities and in the power of market forces to achieve efficiencies and drive innovation and investment,” Fuchs said in his statement.

For her part, Shultz said that “because freight rail and intercity passenger rail serve an integral role in enhancing mobility within the United States, it is incumbent upon the Board to approach matters . . . in an impartial manner within the bounds of its jurisdiction and the law.”

Trump Infrastructure Plan Already Flagging in Congress

March 13, 2018

President Trump has had his say and now Congress is responding to his infrastructure plan. The early returns do not look promising.

Last week, Senate Democrats put forth a $1-trillion infrastructure plan that would, among other things, allocate $180 billion over the next decade to expand and rehabilitate rail and bus systems.

That might sound like music to the ears of rail passenger and public transportation proponents, but the Democrats are the minority party in the Senate and face an uphill battle to take control of that chamber in the November elections.

Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, has his own idea of how Congress should deal with the Trump infrastructure proposal.

He expects Congress to pass several piecemeal bills that will address infrastructure.

Committees dealing with aviation, water and energy are likely to begin drafting their own infrastructure proposals this spring with votes not likely before the summer.

Ryan’s comments are being interpreted by some political observers as a setback for the Trump plan.

The speaker also doused the idea of increasing the federal gasoline tax, a move that had been supported by Republican and Democratic members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The 18.4 cent a gallon tax goes into the Highway Trust Fund and was last increased in 1993. In recent years the revenue flowing from the tax has considerably eroded.

Ryan said raising the gas tax would undo the benefit of the tax cuts that he helped shepherd through Congress late last year.

The Trump administration infrastructure plan does not call for a gas tax increase, but some lawmakers say Trump suggested in a meeting at the White House last month raising the tax to 25 cents per gallon.

The Hill, a website that covers the federal government, reported recently that enthusiasm among Republicans for Trump’s infrastructure program has been lackluster.

Ryan suggested that infrastructure could be addressed in a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, in a must pass omnibus budget bill that has a March 23 deadline, and in the Water Resources Development Act, which Congress must renew every two years.

The omnibus budget bill would represent what Ryan termed a “down payment” on an infrastructure plan.

Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the House Transportation Committee, continues to push for a larger infrastructure bill and has spoken about working with Democrats on the committee to win approval of a package to fund roads, bridges, transit systems, airports and other public works.

Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, acknowledged that opposition to an increase in the gasoline tax presents a challenge to those who want an infrastructure plan.

“Well, it probably means that a big robust infrastructure plan is going to be hard to do if there’s not the money to do it. But I think there are things we can do in the context of an infrastructure bill with some amount of funding,” Thune said.