Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Senate’

Public Transit, High Speed Rail Funding May be Vulnerable to being Slashed from Budget Bill

October 13, 2021

Some congressional observers say that funding for public transit and high speed rail may be vulnerable to being cut as congressional Democrats reduce a $3.5 trillion budget bill to a lesser figure that can win approval of moderate members in the House and Senate.

The publication Rollcall reported that the House budget reconciliation bill allocated $57.3 billion to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, including $10 billion for transit and $10 billion for high-speed rail.

If that funding is cut, some members of Congress will argue that rail passenger service and public transit already are getting new funding as part of a Senate-approved infrastructure bill that included $550 billion in new spending for transportation and infrastructure.

Certainly the argument that it had some funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill will make it harder for there to be robust funding,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) when asked about transit and high-speed rail funding.

The infrastructure bill contains $39 billion in new spending for public transit and $66 billion for passenger rail.

The reconciliation bill contains an additional $10 billion each for public transit and high-speed rail. It also has $4 billion for a greenhouse gas reduction program for highways.

Democrats hold slim majorities in both chambers of Congress and have been fighting over the size of the budget bill.

They are using the reconciliation process to be able to pass a budget bill in the Senate by a simple majority to avoid a likely Republican filibuster.

Complicating matter is that some House Democrats have vowed to oppose the infrastructure bill until the House approves the larger reconciliation bill.

Advocates for public transit had pushed for the additional $10 billion in the reconciliation bill to restore what they see as a “cut” in the infrastructure bill of the originally proposed $48.5 billion for transit.

Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said the $10 billion for transit in the reconciliation bill is for a new program aimed at linking transit to affordable housing through a new grant program. “It really is unique and different,” he said.

However, Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pennsylvania), the committee’s ranking minority member, said the transit allocation in the reconciliation bill violated an agreement not to “double-dip” or spend money on programs that already benefited from the bipartisan infrastructure agreement.

“The transit money is overwhelmingly coming from the bipartisan bill,” Brown said. “No matter what we do on that, that’s not a major hit compared to the tens of billions we put in infrastructure.”

Even if the $10 billion for high speed rail now in the reconciliation bill survives, Jim Mathews, CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said that isn’t enough to launch a comprehensive high-speed rail program.

“That money is desperately needed to jump-start those kinds of efforts,” he said. “But from a more 50,000-foot level, it was a policy endorsement of an approach we really have to embrace in this country.”

Mathews fears that money for high-speed rail is vulnerable to any effort to trim the size of the budget reconciliation bill.

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the need to cut money from the reconciliation measure means “everything could be on the table.”

Tomer said in the scheme of things, the transportation items are relatively small so reducing them will make little progress toward reaching the level of cuts needed to satisfy some senators.

“There are hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending across well over 100 different authorized programs,” he said. “That’s not the place to come up with easy cuts.”

STB Nomination Continues to Languish in Senate

October 9, 2021

The nomination of Karen J. Hedlund to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board continues to languish in the U.S. Senate.

Hedlund, a Democrat, was nominated by President Joseph Biden to fill the seat now held by Republican Ann D. Begeman whose term has expired and who by law must leave the Board by Dec. 31. Begeman continues to be a voting STB member with holdover status.

The nomination of Hedlund was sidetracked on Oct. 6 when Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) objected to Hedlund on the Senate floor.

Lee responded after presiding officer Senate Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) asked if Hedlund could be confirmed by unanimous consent of the senators present without a recorded vote.

Last August, Lee was the lone senator to vote against Hedlund when her nomination was considered by the Senate Commerce Committee.

Lee apparently has placed a “hold” on the Hedlund nomination, using a parliamentary procedure to prevent a motion from reaching a vote on the Senate floor.

Railway Age columnist Frank Wilner has reported that Hedlund has become a political pawn in an effort by the Utah congressional delegation to pressure the STB into supporting the efforts of a private-public partnership to build an 85-mile intrastate railroad in Utah.

The railroad, known as the Unita Basin Railway, would haul crude oil extracted from fracking operations to a connection with Union Pacific at Kyune, Utah.

Because it will connect with the national rail system, the UBR needs an STB certificate of public convenience and necessity.

STB Chairman Martin Oberman has expressed concern as to the financial viability of the project and the effects on the environment that it might create.

Wilner has written that some in Utah hold against Hedlund her prior professional associations with Oberman when she was practicing law in Chicago and Oberman was chairman of commuter operator Metra.

Hedlund is a former deputy administrator and chief counsel at the Federal Railroad Administration, a former chief counsel at the Federal Highway Administration, and most recently vice president and national strategy adviser at WSP USA.

Some in Utah fear that Hedlund will view the UBR project in the same way that Oberman does, although he also has said he does not currently oppose the project, but rather wants the STB to seek additional information about it.

The UBR project has already been before the STB already. In January 2021 the Board voted 2-1 that it meets the statutory standard for fast-track approval.

Oberman was the dissenting voter and dissented again on Sept. 30 when the Board voted 3-1 to deny a motion for reconsideration of its January decision. It is unclear when the STB plans to hold a final vote on awarding a certificate of public convenience and necessity to the UBR project.

Senate Approves Infrastructure Plan

August 11, 2021

The Senate on Tuesday approved the bi-partisan infrastructure plan that would boost funding for Amtrak and public transit.

The Senate vote was 69-30 to approve the $1.2 trillion plan, which includes $66 billion for rail projects including $58 billion for Amtrak. It also contains $106.9 billion for public transit.

Known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bill includes $550 billion in new funding and the Senate’s five-year surface transportation reauthorization measure.

The bill proposes nearly $845 million per year for grade crossing safety and improvement projects and an average of $5.5 billion per year for discretionary infrastructure grant programs, including $1 billion annually for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant program.

It also would enhance the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, and provide significant funding for intercity passenger-rail needs as well as research, development and demonstration projects addressing greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change.

The bill’s prospects in the House remain uncertain. Congressional observers note the House is in recess and the legislation could sit there for several months.

Senate Begins Debating Infrastructure Bill

July 31, 2021

The Senate this week voted to begin debate on a $550 billion bi-partisan infrastructure bill that includes $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion for passenger and freight rail.

The bill would provide $550 billion over five years for new federal investment in infrastructure, Biden administration officials said.

The bill would authorize $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major projects.

The public transit funds are focused on modernizing  transit and improving accessibility for the elderly and those with disabilities.

The rail funding would provide $22 billion to Amtrak. That would be broken down to $24 billion in federal-state partnership grants for Northeast Corridor modernization; $12 billion for partnership grants for intercity rail service, including high speed rail; $5 billion for rail improvement and safety grants; and $3 billion for grade crossing safety improvements.

Port infrastructure would receive $17 billion while airports would receive $25 billion.

The White House fact sheet said the money for the bill is expected to come through a combination of redirecting unspent emergency relief funds, targeted corporate user fees, strengthening tax enforcement when it comes to crypto currencies, and other bipartisan measures, in addition to the revenue generated from higher economic growth as a result of the investments.

Moving to debate does not guarantee passage of the bill or even that it will receive support from Republican senators even if several of them were part of the talks that led to the legislation.

The complete text of the bill has yet to be finished.

If the bill is approved by the Senate, it would go to the House where its fate is uncertain.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to held the bill until her chamber until Congress approves a $3.5 trillion budget plan being pushed by Democrats that includes spending on programs devoted to climate change, health care, education and child care.

Some moderate House Democrats, though, are pushing for an immediate vote on the infrastructure package once it comes over from the Senate.

Manchin Wants Study of Daily Cardinal

June 23, 2021

Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) is pushing for a study of making Amtrak’s Cardinal a daily train.

Nos. 50 and 51 currently operate tri-weekly, departing Chicago on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; and New York on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

Manchin said in a news release that he was able to win approval of a measure to fund the study in the Surface Transportation Investment Act that is being considered by the Senate.

“The language I secured in the Surface Transportation Investment Act will require a study on potential options to restore the Cardinal line daily service, which provides access to and from much of West Virginia, Manchin said in statement.

“This is an important first step towards restoring the Cardinal line and I look forward to reviewing the results of this important study to determine how we can best move forward.”

Hedlund Intended to Replace Begeman on STB

May 3, 2021

The nomination of Democrat Karen J. Hedlund to the Surface Transportation Board is intended to be a replacement for Republican Ann Begeman.

Although Begeman’s term expired Dec. 31, 2020, by law she is eligible to remain on the board in holdover status for up to 12 months or until replaced.

Begeman has served two five-year terms on the STB and was acting chair until replaced in that position by Democrat Martin Oberman last January. STB members are limited to two five-year terms by statute. 

Hedlund will need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate before replacing Begeman on the board.

Congressional observers told Railway Age magazine that Hedlund’s nomination is not expected to get a Senate floor vote until June or July.

A former counsel and deputy administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration, Hedlund since January 2015 has worked at WSP USA (then Parsons Brinckerhoff).

Previously she worked with federal, state and local transportation agencies as well as private companies to facilitate financing and development of transportation projects.

Those included Amtrak’s Gateway Program, Chicago O’Hare Airport Express Rail and the California High-Speed Rail Program.

Hedlund received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University.

Senate Ups Aid to Amtrak, Public Transit

March 9, 2021

Two Indiana projects would benefit from the $30.5 billion for public transit that is part of H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was approved by the Senate last Saturday.

The Senate increased by $1.25 billion the funding for public transit over what the House approved on Feb. 27 and also increased the funding for Amtrak over the House-passed levels.

The bill now goes back to the House for further consideration. The House passed a modified version of the legislation providing $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 emergency funding.

Although some senators proposed amendments that would have cut, transferred or removed the aid to public transit, few of those amendments received a roll call vote and none were approved.

However, the Senate did approve an amendment to make 23 public transit programs eligible for federal Capital Investment Grants.

The House is expected to take up the amended version of the bill today and if approved it would go to President Joseph Biden for his signature.

No projects from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky or West Virginia, were included among the 23 public transit projects eligible for CIG grants.

The two projects in Indiana that will qualify for funding include a double tracking of the South Shore Commuter rail line and a project to establish the West Lake Corridor commuter rail corridor between Hammond and Dyer

The project cost of the West Lake Corridor is $945 million and with a CIG grant share of 38 percent or $355 million. The local share for the project is $590 million.

The South Shore double tracking project cost is $491 million with a CIG grant share of of 38 percent or $173 million. The local share is $318 million.

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $1.7 billion for Amtrak. That is a $200 million increase in funding from what the House approved last month.

Under the Senate version of the legislation $970 million will go toward the Northeast Corridor while the national network will receive $730 million.

The bill also provides $285 million to Amtrak “in lieu of commuter rail and state-supported route payments.”

The bill includes $166 million “to restore service on long-distance routes and to recall and manage furloughed employees.”

The breakdown of other public transit funding in the bill includes $26.09 billion for transit systems in urban areas and $317 million for grants in rural areas.

Also approved was $50 million in grants to benefit services for seniors and those with disabilities; $2.21 billion for operating assistance grants  pertaining to addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; and $250 million for Small Start projects that are recipients of a CIG allocation or an applicant in the project development phase.

Buttigieg Confirmed as Secretary of Transportation

February 3, 2021

Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was confirmed on Tuesday as the 19th Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Pete Buttigieg

The nomination was approved by the U.S. Senate on an 86-13 vote.

 “I’m honored and humbled by today’s vote in the Senate—and ready to get to work @USDOT,” Buttigieg, 39, tweeted after the vote.

The Biden administration had earlier named Polly Trottenberg, a former New York City Transportation commissioner, to serve as USDOT’s No. 2 in command. Amit Bose was named as deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration and Nuria Fernandez was named deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration.

Buttigieg is the youngest member of President Joseph Biden’s cabinet

Senate Confirms 2 STB Nominees

November 20, 2020

The U.S. Senate this week confirmed the appointments of Robert Primus and Michelle Schultz to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which brings the agency to its full authorized number of members.

The fourth and fifth members of the STB are expected to assume their posts shortly.

The STB is authorized by the 2015 Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act to have five members.

Current STB Chairman Ann Begeman’s term expires on Dec. 31 but by law she may remain in holdover status for up to 12 months.

However, she must leave the board if the president appoints and the Senate confirms her successor during 2021.

Begeman is in her second term on the STB and is seen by some Washington observers as unlikely to be renamed to the board.

Primus, a Democrat, was named to replace Democrat Deb Miller for a seat whose term expires Dec. 31, 2022.

Schultz, a Republican, will fill one of two new seats created by the 2015 law that had yet to be filled. She will serve a five-year term.

The term of Republican STB member Patrick Fuchs expires on Jan. 17, 2024 while the term of  Democrat Martin Oberman expires on Dec. 31, 2023.

The STB is expected next year to take action on a number of moves that have become bogged down due to the board being at less than full membership.

These include the method by which revenue adequacy is determined, including whether historical or replacement costs are to be used in computing a railroad’s investment base, and the method for estimating the equity portion of the railroad industry’s cost of capital.  

Also on the docket are matter of whether and how revenue-adequate railroads should be constrained in raising rates and how to simplify and make less costly the determination of reasonable rates where railroads are market-dominant.

Railway Age reported that this issue might be solved through agreement with the railroads that would avoid a post-decision judicial challenge.

The Association of American Railroads is considering proposing some manner of non-precedent-setting arbitration to decide all but major rate cases.

Other matters up for discussion and resolution include setting criteria for, and means to, providing competitive access at sole-served rail facilities; whether to eliminate paper barriers in line sale and line lease agreements that restrict short line railroads from interchanging traffic with competitors of the Class I railroad that sold or leased them the trackage; an appropriate formula for recovery of increased fuel costs; and whether previous regulatory exemptions should be withdrawn, given changed circumstances.”

House Passes Transportation Funding in Budget Bill

August 1, 2020

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved a federal fiscal year budget package that includes $10 billion in funding for Amtrak and $24 billion for public transit.

The legislation includes language that prohibits Amtrak from further furloughs of its work force, directs the intercity rail passenger carrier to maintain daily frequency of service on routes that have it now, and includes a mandate that passengers and employees wear masks on trains, planes, and large transit systems.

The budget bill was approved on a vote of 217 to 197 and now goes to the Senate, which has yet to introduce draft appropriations bills for the next fiscal year which begins on Oct. 1.

The Senate is still trying to approve a COVID-19 pandemic relief package that includes $10 billion in emergency aid for airports but no emergency funding for Amtrak or public transportation.

If the Senate fails to approve an FY2021 budget bill Congress may keep the federal government operating by passing one or more continuing resolutions.

It is unclear at this point what that would mean for Amtrak’s plans to reduce the operation of most long distance passengers trains to tri-weekly on Oct. 1.