Archive for the ‘Other News’ Category

Ann Arbor Station Project Delayed by FRA

March 22, 2017

The clock is starting to tick louder in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the city is racing against a deadline to spend a federal grant to develop a new Amtrak station.

But the city has yet to get the Federal Railroad Administration to approve a draft environmental assessment, which it needs to get done before preliminary station design can begin.

The draft has been at the FRA since December but the agency has yet to act on it.

The Ann Arbor City Council in January approved a $2.14 million contract with Neumann/Smith Architecture for preliminary design and engineering services.

But the consultants can’t do much until the FRA signs off on the draft.

The draft report identifies a preferred location for the new station and a 30-day public review period is expected to follow the release of the report.

City officials have declined for months to say what site they prefer for the station.

One proposal is to build the station in Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital while other sites are being considered along Depot Street, where the current station is located.

City officials told the city council this week that they are working with several parties to try to prod the FRA to move along its review process due to the looming deadline to spend the grant money.

One of those parties is U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who represents Ann Arbor.

Eli Cooper, Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, said a revised draft was sent to the FRA in early February when the FRA said the review would be completed in 30 days.

But last week, the FRA told the city the review has been delayed and did not indicate for how long although Cooper said, “I would expect their review comments, if any, imminently.”

Cooper said the city will release to the public the environmental assessment identifying the preferred station location once the FRA authorizes its release.

Minnesota Trial Rail Service Proposed

March 20, 2017

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed a $3 million trial rail passenger service between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The service was part of his supplemental budget proposal submitted last week to the state legislature.

The rail service would operate for six months for the purpose of assessing whether existing service would be expanded to St. Cloud from downtown Minneapolis.

If the trial service become permanent, it would mean that the Northstar commuter rail service would serve St. Cloud.

At present, the service operates between Target Field in Minneapolis to Big Lake, Minnesota.

The trial service would involve one trip from St. Cloud to Target Field in the morning and a return trip in the evening. Passengers could connect at the Target Field station to the Green and Blue light-rail lines.

Amtrak is expected to provide the St. Cloud service. The national rail passenger carrier currently operates on the route with its daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The tracks on the line are owned by BNSF.

In a statement, Amtrak thanked Dayton “for recognizing the importance of passenger rail, and exploring how Amtrak can further connect St. Cloud with the Twin Cities.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the trial commuter service would not affect the Empire Builder.

The Northstar system was originally intended to serve St. Cloud. But the service now ends at Big Lake because of a lack of federal funding to help pay to develop the Big Leg-St. Cloud segment.

Since Northstar service began in 2009, Big Lake and St. Cloud have been connected by bus service.

Dayton’s budget proposal also includes $850,000 for an engineering study to update a 2010 study of engineering costs and projected ridership between Big Lake and St. Cloud.

The Northstar service would end in St. Cloud at the existing Amtrak station.

NTSB Names Acting Chairman

March 20, 2017

Bella Dinh-Zarr has been named as acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board after the term of incumbent Chairman Christopher Hart expired last week.

Hart remains a member of the five-member board and had served as chairman since March 2015.

He had served as acting chairman for nearly a year before being nominated by the Obama administration to be the permanent chairman.

Dinh-Zarr has served as vice chairman since March 2015. Before joining the NTSB, she served as director of the U.S. Office of the FIA Foundation, an international philanthropy organization that promotes safe and sustainable transportation.
NTSB members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms. By law, a board member is designated by the president to be the chairman while another is designated to be the vice chairman for two-year terms.

NARP Decries Amtrak, Public Transit Funding Cuts

March 17, 2017

The National Association of Railroad Passengers said Thursday that the Trump administration budget for Amtrak for the fiscal year 2018 appears to have been adopted from a model proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The administration described the budget blueprint as a “skinny budget” and it contains few program details.

NARP contends that while President Donald Trump has talked up the need for transportation infrastructure investment, “his administration’s first budget guts infrastructure spending, slashing $2.4 billion from transportation. This will jeopardize mobility for millions of Americans and endanger tens of thousands of American jobs.”

The budget, which must be approved by Congress, would end all federal funding for Amtrak’s national network trains.

NARP said this would leave 23 states, including Ohio, without rail passenger service.

The Trump budget would also cut $499 million from the TIGER grant program, which has been used to advance passenger rail and transit projects and eliminate $2.3 billion for the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” Capital Investment Program, which is used to fund the launch of transit, commuter rail, and light-rail projects.

Political analysts have noted that no budget proposal sent to Congress has emerged without changes.

It is likely that transportation advocacy groups will lobby Congress hard to restore the funding that Trump wants to cut.

Lake Forest Delays Action on Lessening its Opposition to Hiawatha Service Expansion Project

March 11, 2017

The Lake Forest (Illinois) City Council will continue to seek to prod the Federal Railroad Administration to study the proposed expansion of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service, but some council members have also expressed doubt that the lobbying efforts are going to be effective.

Many Lake Forest residents, like those in other communities in the north Chicago suburbs along the Chicago-Milwaukee route, have raised concerns about a passing siding that is part of the expansion.

The siding would give Canadian Pacific freight trains a place to sit while waiting for permission to enter Union Pacific tracks and allow passengers trains of Amtrak and Metra to pass them.

At the same time that they are seeking to push the FRA to conduct an environmental impact statement, Lake Forest is also seeking to become a stop for Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service. The city is already served by a select number of Metra commuter trains.

The council did not act at a recent meeting on a resolution that would reduce the city’s official opposition to the expansion.

Lake Forest Mayor Donald Schoenheider has urged the city to take a longer view, citing the advantages that Amtrak and expanded Metra service would have.

“This is a very complicated, impactful and important issue,” Schoenheider said. “It’s important to look not only how this will affect us five or 10 years from now but 50 [years from now].”

The mayor said that every employer he has spoken with at the Conway (business) Park wants to see Amtrak stop in Lake Forest.

City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. said the lack of southbound Metra service from the west station during the late afternoon hours means that employers must transport their employees by bus to Deerfield to catch a Metra train back to Chicago.

City officials are also discussing what they termed the best ways to influence the FRA, the Illinois Department of Transportation and Wisconsin Department of Transportation to minimize the impact of the passing siding on local residents.

Few of those who packed the city council chambers objected to additional Amtrak or Metra trains. Most of the opposition to the project has focused on a perceived increase in freight traffic and its effect on the environment.

Opposition to Hiawatha Expansion Softening

February 26, 2017

Some north suburban Chicago officials are having second thoughts about their opposition to a proposed expansion of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service.

Hiawatha 2News reports indicate that officials in Lake Forest have softened their stance in view of the likelihood that the Federal Railroad Administration is unlikely to order that a full environmental impact study be done on a proposal to add a third track on the route used by Amtrak, Metra and Canadian Pacific.

Lake Forest, Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield and Bannockburn have demanded the EIS after the release of an environmental assessment last fall that found installing the additional tracks would not adversely affect communities along the line.

That triggered intense opposition from homeowners and public officials who argue that CP freight trains will sit  for long period of time while awaiting permission to enter Union Pacific tracks. This, they argued, will create noise, pollution and lower property values.

Lake Forest Mayor Donald Schoenheider said the city council will vote on a resolution on March 6 pertaining to the proposed expansion.

The news reports indicate that meetings between Lake Forest officials and Metra also played a key role in the change of mind.

Lake Forest City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. said Metra, which owns the tracks between Rondout and Chicago, favors building the third track and opposes conducting an EIS.

Kiely said Metra CEO Donald Orseno recently told suburban officials, “We are not in the business of holding trains. We are in the business of moving trains. The third rail is not a holding track. It is there so faster trains can pass.”

A consulting firm hired by Lake Forest concluded after studying the environmental assessment that the FRA is unlikely to order an EIS and will take a “narrow” view of the proposed expansion because it involves an existing railroad right of way and won’t involve land acquisition.

The consultants concluded that as long as there is no impact on the environment within the railroad’s right of way the chances of FRA requiring an environmental impact study are remote.

Joanne Desmond, president of the Academy Woods Homeowners Association, which has been particularly vocal in its opposition disagrees with her city’s changing stance.

“We do not agree with your rationale,” Desmond said. “What about our safety? Is this just to get more Amtrak trains and Metra trains? Be considerate and consult with the stakeholders. Please reinstate the environmental impact study. Right now there are vibrations.”

Alderman Prue Beidler said she spent several hours in the Academy Woods area February 21. She said she got a first-hand feel for the noise and vibrations as a pair of freight trains passed while she was there.

“I really feel for these people,” said Beidler. “It seems pretty consequential. Can we get some kind of noise buffer because this really has an impact on their neighborhood?

A draft of the resolution that Lake Forest city council will vote on says the city will not oppose construction of the third track provided that idling locomotives are kept away from Academy Woods.

It also asks Metra, Amtrak and the departments of transportation of Illinois and Wisconsin to support the city’s effort to establish an Amtrak stop and increase the number of Metra trains that stop at the west Lake Forest Metra station.

Meta has said that once the third track is built it will launch express service between Chicago and Lake Forest.

In the meantime, representatives of the other cities opposing the expansion continue to insist that the FRA order an EIS.

Dan Owen, Glenview’s interim village manager, said that the project may affect communities in different ways. “We want to know what it is going to do to our community,” he said.

Deerfield Village Manager Kent Street said his town was not changed its position. The same is true for Northbrook Village President Sandy Frum.

“We are concerned about how the provisions put forth in the environmental assessment will affect our Northbrook community,” said Erik Jensen, assistant to the village manager of Northbrook.

Megabus to Resume Chicago-Nebraska Route

February 21, 2017

Amtrak just go another travel competitor in the Chicago-Nebraska travel market.

megabusMegabus has announced that it will restore service between Chicago and Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 1.

The single roundtrip a day will make intermediate stops in Omaha, Nebraska; the Iowa cities of Des Moines and Iowa City; and Moline, Illinois.

Additional trips may be added on weekends and holidays. The service is being operated as a partnership with Windstar Lines of Carroll, Iowa.

Megabus ended the route last month, citing declining ridership due to low gasoline prices.

Norman to Become Locomotive Horn Quiet Zone

February 16, 2017

Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer will be making less noise as it passes through Norman, Oklahoma, starting Friday.

Heartland FlyerThe city has adopted an ordinance that will result in Amtrak and BNSF trains gradually decreasing the use of locomotive horns.

Eventually, Norman will become a quiet zone although locomotive engineers will be permitted to sound the horn for safety reasons.

The city has installed median barriers and warning signs at grade crossing as required by federal law in order to qualify as a quiet zone for locomotive horns.

Norman, the hometown of the University of Oklahoma, has been working since 2015 to establish itself as a quiet zone.

MDOT to Seek Proposals for Feasibility Study of Ann Arbor-Traverse City Rail Passenger Service

February 11, 2017

A request for proposals to evaluate intercity railroad passenger service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City has been issued by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

MichiganKnown as the A2TC Train, the service is specified in MDOT’s 2011 Michigan State Rail Plan, which called for service to the northern part of the state.

The feasibility study will cost $160,000 of which half comes from a federal transportation planning grant. The other half will be split between the state and local agencies.

The not-for-profit Traverse City Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities led the drive to raise the local matching funds for the study.

Work on the study is expected to get underway in May.

MDOT Director Kirk Steudle said in a statement that demand for passenger rail service is “increasing because of high energy costs and increased congestion of highways and air travel.”

The A2TC route would serve Petoskey, Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, Owosso, Durand, Howell and Ann Arbor.

It would connect with Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit corridor at Ann Arbor.

The feasibility study is established to take nine months, but some officials are hoping it will be completed by November.

Indiana Legislators Taking Note of IP Exit as an Operator of the Hoosier State, Future Uncertain

February 4, 2017

Indiana lawmakers aren’t saying just yet if they will continue to support paying for the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

iowa-pacificAn Indiana radio station reported that legislators were prepared to continue the funding in the next state budget, but that has been called into question with the exit of Iowa Pacific Holdings as a partner in operating the train.

The Indiana General Assembly provided $6 million in one-time funding in the current state to pay for the quad-weekly Hoosier State.

Senator Brandt Hershman (R-Buck Creek) said he thought the service provided by Iowa Pacific was good.

“It’s comfortable, you don’t have to worry about traffic, you can get work done, you get something to eat, you have Wi-Fi – all those things help the value proposition of the train,” Hershman says.

Another lawmaker, House Ways and Means Chair Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville), is skeptical that Amtrak can provide that level of service.

“We know that performance under Amtrak wasn’t what we wanted,” Brown said. “We got better performance out of Iowa Pacific and I don’t know if there’s another vendor out there but we’ll just have to have more talk about this.”

The budget for the next fiscal year has yet to be released.

Iowa Pacific and Amtrak have a partnership to operate the Hoosier State with IP providing equipment, marketing and on-board service, and Amtrak providing operating crews and handling relationships with the host railroads.

Amtrak will take full control of the Hoosier State on March 1.