Transportation Groups Generally Pleased With Proposed Federal Transportation Funding Bill

The five-year federal transportation bill that is before Congress affects the railroad industry by strengthening tank-car safety standards, increases funding for transit systems and creates a rail title that authorizes funding for Amtrak and intercity passenger-rail grants.

Known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, the authorizes $305 billion for transportation programs.

Railroad and public transportation trade organizations are still reviewing the legislation, which was agreed upon by a House and Senate conference committee on Tuesday, but initial reactions to the bill are positive.

“As the first long-term surface transportation bill in 10 years, the significance of this legislation cannot be overstated,” said American Public Transportation Association  President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Melaniphy. “A well-funded, long-term surface transportation authorization is critical to the economic competitiveness and prosperity of our nation’s communities.”

Jim Matthews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, called the FAST Act a step in the right direction.

“We’ve gone from the House voting on whether to completely eliminate funding to Amtrak in the spring, to the full Congress thinking seriously and thoughtfully about how to improve and expand the passenger rail network in a single calendar year; that is a big achievement for America’s 31 million passengers,” he said.

Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger hailed the bill’s action on  tank-car standards.

In a statement, the AAR also welcomed a provision that streamlines the environmental permitting process for rail infrastructure projects based on previously enacted reforms for highway and transit projects.

Hamberger said these reforms are designed to increase capacity, improve safety, hire new employees and provide more efficient service.

The bill authorizes $61.1 billion over five years for public transportation, according to APTA. Overall, transit funding would increase by more than 10 percent in one year and by almost 18 percent over the five-year bill.

The bill also would provide $199 million in one-time funding for commuter railroads to implement positive train control technology and authorizes $200 million, rising to $650 million in 2020, for three separate rail infrastructure programs.

The current federal surface transportation authorization expires on Dec. 4 and a short-term extension may be needed to give the House and Senate time to approve the final bill.

As for the tank car standards, the bill increases the thermal blanket protection for tank cars and restrictions on the use of older DOT-111 tank cars that move flammable liquids.

The bill also includes a requirement for top fittings protection on tank car retrofits, which addressed what the rail industry said was a shortcoming in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s tank car rule enacted in May.

Other railroad elements in the bill include:
• Amtrak funding under a new Northeast Corridor account and a separate National Network program, with total funding for both programs set at $1.45 billion in 2016, rising to $1.8 billion by 2020. Competitors will be allowed to operate up to three Amtrak long-distance lines if they could do so at less cost to taxpayers.
• Accelerates the delivery of rail projects by reforming the environmental and historic preservation review processes, applying existing exemptions already used for highways to make critical rail investments go further.

  • Establishes limited authorization with guaranteed funding for grants or loans to commuter railroads and States that can leverage $2 billion in financing for positive train control implementation.
  • Preserves the U.S. Department of Transportation’s final rule requiring ECP brakes on certain trains by 2021 and 2023, while requiring an independent evaluation and real-world derailment test. DOT must evaluate its final rule within the next two years using the results of the evaluation and testing.
  • Increases the passenger rail liability cap to $295 million by adjusting the current $200 million cap for inflation. The provision will be applied to the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia on May 12, 2015, and adjusts the cap for inflation every five years.
  • Requires passenger railroads to install inward-facing cameras to monitor train crews and outward-facing cameras to monitor track conditions at the time of an accident or incident.
  • Closes a potential loophole in DOT regulations and reduces the risk of thermal tears, which is when a pool fire causes a tank car to rupture and potentially result in greater damage.
  • Improves emergency response by requiring railroads to provide accurate, real-time, and electronic train consist information to first responders on the scene of an accident.
  • Increases safety at highway-rail crossings by requiring action plans to improve engineering, education, and enforcement, evaluating the use of locomotive horns and quiet zones, and examining methods to address blocked crossings.
  • Enhances passenger rail safety by requiring speed limit action plans, redundant signal protection, alerters, and other measures to reduce the risk of over-speed derailments and worker fatalities.
  • Creates a working group and rail restoration program to explore options for resuming service discontinued after Hurricane Katrina.
  • Reforms the $35 billion Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program to increase transparency and flexibility, expand access for limited option freight rail shippers, and provide tools to reduce taxpayer risks.

NARP broke down the authorizing funding for Amtrak and select other rail programs as follows:

  •  Northeast Corridor, $2.596 billion.
  • National network, $5.454 billion.
  • Gulf Coast Working Group, $500,000.
  • Consolidated rail infrastructure and safety improvement, $1.103 billion.
  • Federal-state partnership for state of good repair, $997 million over five years.
  • Restoration and enhancement grants, $100 million.
  • Amtrak Office of Inspector General, $105 million.
  • Authorization of grants for positive train control, $199 million.

The bill boosts highway spending by 15 percent and transit spending by 18 percent while authorizing $10 billion over five years for Amtrak, $12 billion for mass transit and $1 billion for vehicle safety programs.

However, those funding numbers are subject to annual spending decisions by Congress.

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