Posts Tagged ‘Trump administration’

2 Nominated for STB Seats

March 6, 2018

President Donald Trump has nominated Patrick Fuchs and Michelle Schultz to serve five-year terms on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Both are Republicans and their appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.

If approved, they would bring the number of STB members to four with a fifth slot, which by law must be filled by a Democrat, still to be named.

Fuchs has worked on the staff the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

A White House news release said that he worked on the development and enactment of major railroad legislation, including the first re-authorization of the STB since its creation in 1996, as well as the first passenger rail re-authorization in more than seven years.

Fuchs also 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 joining the agency in 2006, she was an associate with a Philadelphia law firm, and clerked for the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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Amtrak Seeking $1.7B for FY 2019

February 26, 2018

Amtrak is seeking $1.7 billion in federal funding for fiscal year 2019, which is considerably more than the Trump Administration has proposed that it receive.

The passenger carrier’s budget request is similar to what Congress authorized for it in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015.

The funding request includes a long list of proposed capital improvement needs, including $6.272 billion for the proposed new Hudson River tunnels, and seeks changes to federal law that the carrier said will improve its cost recovery and operations.

The administration has proposed slashing Amtrak funding by almost two-thirds, from $1.5 billion to $538 million.

Amtrak usually does not receive all of what it requests from Congress. Due to the inability of lawmakers to approve an appropriations bill, Amtrak’s current funding is based on its fiscal year 2017 allocation because FY 2018 spending has been handled in a series of continuing resolutions. The federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

The Fiscal Year 2019 General and Legislative Annual Report to Congress projects that Amtrak’s funding needs will increase to $2.1 billion by fiscal 2023.

Northeast Corridor funding will rise from $543 million in FY 2018 to $966 million in 2023. The National Network, which includes long-distance and state-supported corridor trains, is expected to see its funding needs drop from $1.157 million to $1.134 million.

Railroad Industry Has Its Wish List of Legislative, Policy and Regulatory Changes at the Ready

February 17, 2018

Christmas is 10 months away, but the railroad industry has a long wish list of what it wants from Santa Claus, who in this case is the federal government

The industry will send representatives to Washington on March 7 for its annual Railroad Day on Capitol Hill to push policy makers in Congress, the executive branch and federal regulatory agencies to grant those wishes.

In an analysis, Progressive Railroading magazine said some items on the list are perennial wishes, meaning the industry has still yet to see them granted.

These include a permanent extension of the Section 45G tax credit for short lines railroads; maintaining existing truck-size and weight restrictions; shoring up the federal Highway Trust Fund; and knocking out the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s proposed “competitive switching” rules.

A recent wish that has been added to the list concerns the Trump administration infrastructure program proposal that Congress is now considering.

Railroad industry trade groups said they will push for rail projects to have priority in funding programs.

This will include increased federal funding for Amtrak and commuter-rail agencies to complete positive train control implementation.

They also want to argue that rails need to be on the same level as other modes of transportation.

“We are very concerned about modal parity,” said Nicole Brewin, vice president of government affairs for the Railway Supply Institute. “We are concerned that rail should have a bite of the apple, so to speak.”

NAFTA

Going back to the 2016 presidential election, railroads have expressed concern about the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which then-candidate Donald Trump used to decry at every opportunity.

Since being elected, Trump has pushed to renegotiate the treaty, but encountered resistance from Canada and Mexico.

The railroad industry has generally supported the talks to negotiate new terms to NAFTA, but doesn’t support Trump’s pledge to withdraw if he doesn’t get the terms he wants.

That’s because railroads benefit from moving goods between the United States and Canada and Mexico. This includes some goods that are manufactured elsewhere around the world, but routed through those countries.

“Economic growth tied to NAFTA has allowed railways to invest tens of billions of dollars into their infrastructure while improving productivity and customer service, and fostering innovation,” a coalition of railroad trade groups wrote in an open letter issued on Jan. 22. “Collectively, these improvements have enabled railways to maintain the low rates that are required to provide shippers with access to global supply chains to support their success.”

The letter said that NAFTA has since it went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994, helped develop an integrated economy in which a continental rail network is essential for the flow of goods across North America.

Trade between the U.S. and Canada between 1993 and 2016 increased by 157 percent to $544.6 billion. During the same period, U.S.-Mexico trade skyrocketed 543 percent to $523.8 billion and Canada-Mexico trade jumped 776 percent to $30.8 billion.

The letter was signed by the heads of the Association of American Railroads, the Railway Association of Canada, and the Asociacion Mexicana de Ferrocarriles.

The AAR said about 42 percent of rail carloads and 35 percent of rail revenue are directly associated with international trade.

“We’re not saying NAFTA can’t be updated,” said AAR CEO Edward Hamberger. “There will be changes in it. But you can’t just withdraw from it.”

Worrying the railroad industry is a Trump administration proposal to dramatically increase the amount of content from NAFTA nations in automobiles to 85 percent from 62.5 percent.

The administration wants to see 50 percent of the content of vehicles come from companies in the United States.

Much of the auto traffic in North America, including parts, moves by rail and the industry fears that the administration’s proposed formula could interrupt the supply chain and make it more difficult for vehicles and parts to move within the United States or between Mexico and Canada duty-free.

Short Line Tax Credit

The short-line railroad tax credit has long been on the wish list of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

The credit, which expired on Dec. 31, 2016, allowed regional and short-lines railroads to claim a 50-cent tax credit for each dollar they spend on track rehabilitation and maintenance projects. That credit is capped at $3,500 per mile of owned or leased track.

Although Congress is considering extending the credit until the end of this year, ASLRRA President Linda Bauer Darr said her group’s members want a 10-year deal.

Class I railroads recently benefited from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which cut their corporate taxes. Now short-line railroads want relief of their own.

Truck Size

The trucking industry, of course, has its own wish list that it circulates in Washington and that includes loosening federal restrictions on the size and weight of trucks allowed on interstate highways.

Truckers would like to see the allowable length restriction on double trailers extended from 28 feet to 33 feet.

“Our biggest concern [with the truck-size and weight issue] is the size and shape of the opposition,” says ASLRRA’s Darr. “As we see companies like Amazon coming on board and aligning themselves with FedEx, UPS and others, it becomes an even larger challenge to hold our ground on what is an existential threat to our industry.”

Darr said twin 33-foot trailers would hurt the carload market of railroads by causing a significant amount of freight diversion from rails to trucks.

Railroads and a lobbying group fighting longer trucks beat back the trucking industry’s proposals last year, but the truckers are back.

Railroad lobbyists say the congressional appropriations process is always a battleground because appropriations bills are the primary vehicles for bigger-truck proponents to advance their proposals.

Highway Trust Fund

The solvency of the Highway Trust Fund has been an issue in recent years because of falling revenue from federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.

The trust fund is used for surface transportation improvements, including at transit-rail agencies.  Congress last increased fuel taxes in 1993 and many in the transportation sector have long argued that the trust fund isn’t keeping pace with the cost to maintain and repair infrastructure. Since 2008 Congress has bolstered the highway trust fund with $143 billion a year from general revenue.

The railroad industry argues that this has represented a subsidy to the trucking industry, which doesn’t cover the cost of infrastructure damage caused by heavy trucks.

The AAR said that freight railroads have invested $25 billion a year in their own infrastructure networks.

“We think our competition should have to pay their way as well,” said AAR Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Ian Jefferies.

The AAR has proposed finding new ways to shore up the highway trust fund, including raising the gas tax or instituting tolls or new fees based on vehicle miles traveled.

Railroad Regulation

So long as railroads and their customers continue to have disputes there will continue to be calls by shippers to impose new regulations on railroads.

The railroad industry is heartened by the Trump administration’s approach to federal regulation, including the U.S. Department of Transportation’s repeal late last year of a Federal Railroad Administration rulemaking proceeding pertaining to the installation of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on certain tank cars.

The railroad industry has called Trump’s efforts to streamline the infrastructure project approval process a welcome sign.

Still, railroad industry executives worry that some proposed regulations being considered by the STB might discourage railroad investments.

This includes competitive access, also known as reciprocal switching, which is being pushed by some shippers.

The railroad industry view is that competitive switching would force them to surrender their privately-owned property for use by competing railroads, said Sean Winkler, director of advocacy at the Railway Engineering-Maintenance Supplier Association.

For their part, shippers counter that reciprocal switching would increase price competition.

The railroad industry is also eyeing how the STB defines “revenue adequacy” for Class I railroads, a concept that describes whether a railroad is earning enough revenue to cover its costs and earn a return that’s sufficient to attract capital.

The STB is currently awaiting the seating of three more members before moving forward on some rulemaking decisions.

The Board has two members, Acting Chair Ann Begeman and Vice Chair Deb Miller, since a third member, Daniel R. Elliott III, resigned last September.

The railroad industry wants to see those open seats filled by members with direct rail industry experience.

Infrastructure Plan

The railroad industry is pleased with the Trump administration’s focus on rebuilding infrastructure but fears that partisan fighting will result in little or nothing getting done.

The administration has proposed spending $200 billion over the next decade as matching grants for projects that would be primarily financed by state and local governments, or the private sector.

Trump has claimed that the plan will lead to $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending.

“Picking a number to spend on infrastructure is the easy part; the hard part is figuring out how to pay for it,” said Chuck Baker, president of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association.

Baker said he is “hopeful but not optimistic” about whether Congress will be able to agree on a program that “spends real money and in any way moves the dial on infrastructure.”

Instead, he believes what is more likely is a smaller bill that calls for regulatory reforms, shortens the environmental permitting process and fixes financing programs for infrastructure projects.

The railroad industry hopes that any infrastructure program included grants for freight-rail projects.

It could also be used to extend longer term the short-line railroad tax credit, freeze current truck size and weight restrictions, and provide grants for transit and intercity passenger rail.

Trump Budget Also Targets Air Service, Fees

February 15, 2018

Amtrak is not the only form of transportation with a target on its back in the Trump administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019.

In the same way that the budget seeks to slash funding for Amtrak, particularly its long-distance trains, the administration wants to cut funding for essential air service to small airports.

The budget proposed cutting expenditures for the EAS program from $150 million to $93 million.

The budget would also raise fees related to transportation security, and customs and immigration fees paid by airline and cruise passengers. The federal air traffic control system would be privatized.

Amtrak funding would fall from $1.5 billion to $738 million. The budget proposal said Amtrak’s long-distance trains suffer from poor on-time performance and carry just 4.7 million of Amtrak’s nearly 32 million annual passengers. It also said the long-distance trains lose more than $500 million annually.

These proposals are not new. Most of them were in the FY 2018 budget, but Congress did not heed them.

The Trump administration budget proposal calls for appropriating $15.6 billion for the Department of Transportation, a cut of 19 percent from what Congress gave it in FY 2017.

The most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Transportation, dated October 2016, shows that the federal government funded commercial airline flights to 120 communities in the continental U.S and Hawaii.

The program, which began in 1978, also makes 237 Alaskan communities eligible for funding.

The rational for the EAS program was to enable remote towns to remain in the national air traffic network following airline deregulation, which resulted in scores of airports losing commercial service.

“However, today many EAS flights are not full and have high per-passenger subsidy costs. Several EAS eligible communities are relatively close to major airports,” the budget proposal says.

The recommendations were part of the $4.4 trillion budget proposal the administration sent to Congress on Monday.

Among the travel security-related fees that the administration wants to increase are the 9/11-passenger security fee that is assessed on airfare from the current $5.60 per one-way trip to $6.60 in 2019 and then to $8.25 beginning in 2020.

Although the 9/11 fee is supposed to fund Transportation Security Administration airport operations, Congress has sent about a third of it to items unrelated to security.

The administration said raising the fee would result in the traveling public paying for the full cost of aviation security.

The custom inspection fee would increase from $5.65 to $7.75. This fee is assessed on air and cruise ticket prices for people arriving in the United States.

The immigration fee, which is also assessed on tickets held by air and cruise passengers entering the U.S., would go from $7 to $9.

The proposal includes ending an exemption on that fee for passengers arriving via sea from Canada and Mexico.

The budget proposal said that the customs fee and immigration fee were last increased in 2007 and 2001, respectively.

Air traffic control is now overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, but the Trump administration wants to shift it to an independent private organization.

Doing this, the administration believes, would speed implementation of a satellite-based NextGen system while removing air traffic control from contentious appropriation debates in Congress.

Critics have said doing this would reduce public accountability and harm the interests of private aviation.

An ATC privatization bill has twice made it out of the House Transportation Committee, but has failed to pass either the full House or the Senate due to bi-partisan opposition.

Trump Wants to Cut Amtrak Funding in Half

February 14, 2018

Here we go again. The proposed fiscal year 2019 federal budget released this week by the Trump administration proposes cutting in half the federal funding for Amtrak.

As the administration did a year ago, it is taking aim at long-distance trains, calling for funding of those to be slashed and for states served by the trains to pick up that funding.

But even the Northeast Corridor would face federal funding cuts, seeing its funding reduced from $328 million to $200 million.

Total Amtrak funding would be $538 million. Congress appropriated $1.2 million for Amtrak in the current fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30.

The Trump administration proposed a similar budget cut for Amtrak last year, but Congress ignored it.

Amtrak issued a statement saying the proposed cuts would negatively affect the more than 31 million people who ride Amtrak.

“As the budget process progresses, we look forward to working with the administration, Congress, state partners and other stakeholders to consider these proposals and the impacts they could have on this important part of the nation’s transportation system,” the passenger carrier said.

Amtrak said it remains focused on running efficiently, saying that it covered 94.7 percent of its total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in fiscal year 2017, but it must rely on some level of federal funding.

In a 160-page budget narrative submitted to Congress, the White House Office of Management & Budget said that having states share the burden of funding Amtrak would make “states more equal partners with the federal government, and would strengthen the responsiveness of Amtrak to the communities they serve.”

The narrative contends that along with cuts to Amtrak funding the administration “proposes reforms to Amtrak to improve efficiencies and effectiveness of long-distance routes.”

“State contributions to long distance routes is only one tool in the menu of options,” the administration said it will be exploring.

Trump Infrastructure Plan Gets Mixed Reviews

February 14, 2018

The Trump Administration’s proposed infrastructure plan has been released to mixed reviews from the transportation sector.

A qualified positive review came from the Association of American Railroads, which called the plan a start in a discussion about infrastructure needs.

In a prepared statement, AAR President and CEO Edward Hamberger said the trade organization “particularly welcomes the efforts to streamline the federal permitting processes, including in the proposal’s attempt to codify executive orders into law while also strengthening existing processes.”

However, the American Public Transportation Association expressed concern about proposed “deep cuts” in federal programs that fund public transit infrastructure.

“The $200 billion proposed by the administration for infrastructure would be paid for by cutting funding for critical public transportation infrastructure programs, including the Capital Improvement Grants, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, and Amtrak in the fiscal-year 2019 budget,” APTA said in a statement. “This would be a big mistake and counterproductive to fostering prosperous communities.”

APTA did commend the administration’s commitment to strengthening American infrastructure.

President Trump has proposed that states and local communities match federal funds they receive to implement infrastructure improvement projects. It is also seeking to encourage private-sector investors in public works projects.

The plan would expand the use of tax-exempt debt, allow states to add tolls on interstate highways, and make it easier to lease airports and other public assets.

The AAR said a key component of any infrastructure plan needs to be a long-term solution to shoring up the Highway Trust Fund.

It noted that such a proposal was not included in Trump’s infrastructure plan.

“Policymakers should make every effort to return surface transportation funding to a truly equitable, user-pay system as originally designed,” Hamberger said.

APTA said it will work toward a bipartisan solution that continues and expands the “historic federal support” that’s necessary to address public transit needs, including a $90 billion backlog of the transit industry’s state-of-good repair needs.

“Funding public transportation projects is aligned with the administration’s focus on funding major transformative projects, supporting rural communities, streamlining the federal permitting and approval processes, and investing in a high-skilled, competitive workforce,” APTA said. “We are encouraged by specific provisions in the proposal related to public transportation, including streamlining, preserving and expanding the CIG pilot program and eliminating constraints on private-public partnerships.”

Infrastructure Plan Has Ideas for Railroads, Transit

February 13, 2018

The Trump Administration infrastructure plan released on Monday devoted nine paragraphs in its 55 pages to the railroad industry.

The plan, which is more a concept than a blueprint, proposes that Congress authorize funds to the U.S. Department of Transportation related to the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program.

The infrastructure plan, titled Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America proposes funding passenger and short-line freight projects so supporters of those projects can borrow at rates comparable to better-funded or less risky ventures.

The administration also wants Congress to change the law to reduce the time that organizations or people can contest a project from two years to 150 days.

Related to that, the administration wants to reduce the amount of time needed for an environmental review process for projects that involve the purchase or exercise of options on proposed rights-of-way.

The proposed change would enable rail project promoters to buy land earlier in the process.

Another proposed change would affect transit projects. The administration has proposed that transit agencies and developers that use federal funds must have “value capture” financing

This would levy additional taxes and fees or grant land-use rights to transit agencies with the expectation that businesses and properties near transit projects would see a boost in value after transit comes in.

Finally, the administration wants fewer limits on public-private partnerships in transit projects.

Acting FRA Head Resigns Post

February 13, 2018

The acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration has resigned following allegations that he was moonlighting as a public relations consultant.

Heath Hall stepped down on Sunday from his position, which did not require Senate confirmation.

Hall was appointed acting FRA head after the Trump admistration’s pick for the permanent FRA chief post was held up in the Senate.

Trump has nominated  former Conrail executive Ron Batory, but Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Corey Booker of New Jersey have placed a hold on the nomination in an effort to use it to pressure the administration into releasing federal funding for the proposed Gateway rail tunnel project between New York and New Jersey.

Hall had been reported to have taken a leave of absence from the FRA, citing unidentified family issues, but reports have surfaced saying that twice Hall appeared in Mississippi as a spokesman for the Madison County sheriff.

Hall had said on a federal ethics form that his public relations work would remain dormant while he worked at DOT.

However, information has surfaced that Hall received compensation for public relations efforts between July and December last year.

“We were unaware of the information that is being reported but those allegations, if they are true, are troubling,” DOT spokeswoman Marianne McInerney said in a statement. “Heath Hall has resigned his position at the Department effective immediately.”

Railway Age reported that Batory has been working as an aide to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and is to offer his advice when when the FRA’s new interim acting administrator, General Counsel Juan D. Reyes III, testifies on positive train control implementation on Feb. 15 before the House Rail Subcommittee.

The magazine said that Trump could name Batory as deputy administrator, a post that does not need Senate confirmation but carries less prestige and offers less money

However, Batory would be able to oversee the FRA while awaiting Senate confirmation.

The Senate could also invoke cloture, which would override the hold that Schumer and Booker have on the nomination.

However, that usually requires 60 votes and Republicans cannot muster that within their own membership ranks. Under certain circumstances, cloture can be invoked with 51 votes.

A third option would be for Trump to name Batory as FRA head as a recess appointment in late February when Congress is away on break. That would make Batory head of the FRA through the end of 2019.

Trump Infrastructure Plan to be Revealed

February 12, 2018

The long-awaited Trump administration infrastructure plan will be revealed today and despite the $1.5 trillion benefits being touted by the president it is expected to provide a modest $200 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years.

The plan is already facing opposition in Congress from conservative Republicans who think the price tag is too high and Democrats who think it is not enough.

Aside from being designed to bolster infrastructure spending, the plan also is designed to change the nature of the funding relationship between state and local governments, and the federal government.

For decades, infrastructure projects have received large chunks of funding from federal money.

But the Trump infrastructure proposal would limit the federal share to 20 percent of a project’s cost.

Critics contend the plan will also encourage a wave of toll roads and bridges to pay for some road projects.

Also expected to be in the proposal is a relaxation of environmental rules surrounding infrastructure plans. The administration wants to reduce the time needed for an environmental review to no more than two years.

Trump has acknowledged that the $200 billion in federal aid is not a large amount and has also spoke of paying for the plan by making unspecified budget cuts elsewhere.

A White House official told reporters during a briefing on Saturday about the proposal that Trump’s infrastructure plan isn’t an all or nothing thing.

“This is the start of a negotiation — bicameral, bipartisan negotiation — to find the best solution for infrastructure in the U.S.,” the official said.

The official said Trump “is open to new sources of funding.” However, he downplayed an increase in the gasoline tax as has been proposed by some, including House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Schuster and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The funding from the infrastructure plan would not be limited to transportation projects.

It would fund such things as broadband in rural areas and aim to encourage apprenticeships and other forms of workforce training as well as pay for unspecified “transformative,” “next-century-type” projects that would “lift the American spirit,” a White House official said.

What is to be released today is a statement of principles that Congress will work into legislation.

That means the proposal will be overseen by 11 House and Senate committees, all of which are likely to have their own visions for what the infrastructure plan should and shouldn’t be.

The administration is planning to hold a briefing with state and local officials this morning and to engage in a campaign on behalf of the plan from Trump and members of his cabinet.

Cabinet members are expected to fan out across the country to talk about infrastructure needs.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has said the backlog of needed infrastructure projects amounts to $4.59 trillion in needed investments by 2025.

Florida Rep Named to Amtrak Board

February 3, 2018

A Florida state representative has been nominated by the Trump administration to serve on Amtrak’s board of directors.

Joe Gruters is a first-term member of the Florida House of Representatives and a ertified Public Accountant.

He served as co-chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign in Florida and has twice been appointed to the board of trustees of Florida State University.

“I’m looking forward to trying to make Amtrak efficient, effective and safe,” Gruters said.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate Gruters would serve the remainder of a five-year term that expires in October 2022.