Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

Long Distance Trains Could Vanish in October

July 6, 2020

Rail passenger advocates have had much to say about Amtrak’s plans to convert all long distance trains except the Auto Train to less than daily service on Oct. 1.

Some of what advocates have said has struck me as hyperbole, particularly assertions that it is the first step toward the elimination of the long-distance trains.

However, given the general hostility by former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and current vice president Stephen Gardner toward long-distance trains, such assertions cannot be dismissed out of hand.

But it wasn’t until I read a column in Railway Age by David Peter Alan that I began thinking that maybe there is something to the notion that making long-distance trains operate tri-weekly is an ominous development.

If Alan is correct in his interpretation of federal law, the situation could be one in which operating the long distance trains tri-weekly is a near best-case situation.

The crux of Alan’s argument is the meaning of the federal law that authorizes Amtrak.

Alan notes that 49 U.S. Code §24706(a) states that Amtrak must give 180 days’ notice before “discontinuing service over a route.”

However, another section of the law, §24706(b)(1)(A), allows Amtrak to discontinue service during “the first month of a fiscal year if the authorization of appropriations and the appropriations for Amtrak are not enacted at least 90 days before the beginning of the fiscal year.”

This might explain why Amtrak CEO William Flynn wrote a May 25 letter to Congress seeking a $1.4 billion supplememental appropriation on top of the regular requested appropriation for fiscal year 2021.

The letter warned that long distance trains were “at risk” without the supplemental appropriation.

Even if Amtrak receives every penny it has requested, Flynn wrote, all long distance trains except the Auto Train would operate on a reduced schedule.

It may be that what Flynn meant is that if the passenger carrier doesn’t get its requested additional funding it will invoke federal law to suspend long distance trains completely during October.

Alan writes in his Railway Age piece that given the way the law is worded “it may already be too late for Congress to increase Amtrak’s appropriation to cover daily operation of the L-D trains and be sure that those trains will, indeed, operate every day.”

He goes on to say Congress has the authority to change or override this law and mandate that Amtrak continue daily operation on long distance trains.

This is what rail passengers advocates are hoping will happen but that is not guaranteed.

There likely are discussions going on between Amtrak and congressional staff members regarding Amtrak funding for FY2021 including the fate of the long distance trains.

It may be that less than daily service of long distance trains is simply a political strategy by Amtrak to maximize its funding in FY2021.

Then again it could be part of a larger strategy to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to do what management has discussed doing in the past couple years.

The pandemic has severely depressed ridership and Flynn’s letter to Congress projects that ridership will continue to be below half of normal through FY2021.

There is, of course, a difference between ridership declines that occur naturally and those that are induced by management actions, such as in the name of safety reducing the capacity of trains by half.

It may be noteworthy that at least one major airline, American Airlines, has said it will cease reducing the capacity of its planes even though it pledged to take other steps to protect its passengers.

Alan, who is an attorney and chairman of the Lackawanna Coalition, believes Amtrak’s objective is to rid itself of the long distance trains and transform itself into a series of disjointed corridors with those outside the Northeast funded by the states they serve.

But even those corridors are in peril. Flynn wrote in his May 25 letter that without the supplemental funding, some state services will be suspended or operate at skeletal levels.

In fact that began happening early on during the pandemic and continues to be the case today even if some services have been reinstated this summer.

Amtrak wants the federal government to underwrite some of the payments that states would have made for corridor services.

The appropriations process is highly political and it remains to be seen what will emerge from Congress for FY2021.

Lawmakers have in past years missed the Sept. 30 deadline to approve a budget for the fiscal year that starts the next day but kept the federal government running through continuing resolutions.

It is unclear how that would affect Amtrak’s long distance trains. Congress could mandate keeping the status quo, but Amtrak management might do what it wants to do anyway.

What we do know is that Amtrak launched a preview of coming attractions today when it implemented less than daily service by the Silver Star and Silver Meteor between New York and Miami.

Amtrak is itself a political creature. That became clear when Congress shut down the carrier’s desire to replace the middle of the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief with an 11-hour bus connection.

Rail passenger advocates may have “won” that battle but that doesn’t mean they have yet to win the greater war.

More often than not management gets its way and if Amtrak management is determined to get rid of the long-distance trains it will continue seeking ways to do that even it if claims to not be doing any such thing.

If you want to read Alan’s article, you can find it at https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/intercity/first-in-a-series-has-amtrak-declared-war/https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/intercity/first-in-a-series-has-amtrak-declared-war/

House Passes Surface Transportation Bill

July 3, 2020

The U.S. House this week passed a five year reauthorization of surface transportation programs.

H.R. 2, which was named the Moving Forward Act, authorizes spending of $1.5 trillion on various transportation-related programs, including Amtrak.

The legislation approves $500 billion to reauthorize surface transportation programs and funding for infrastructure projects.

That includes $105 billion for public transportation and $60 billion for commuter rail, Amtrak and other high-performance rail service.

The bill has received mixed reviews from railroad trade associations because of various mandates that railroads generally oppose.

H.R. 2 faces considerable opposition in the Senate, which is expected to adopt its own surface transportation reauthorization bill with differences to be worked out in a conference committee.

The current surface transportation law, known as the FAST Act, will expire on Sept. 30.

Aside from specific transportation programs, H.R. 2 also authorizes $130 billion for schools, $100 billion for rural broadband and $100 billion for affordable housing.

Senators Push Back on Amtrak Service Cuts

June 30, 2020

Some members of the Senate have told Amtrak that they will not support its request for $1.475 in additional money in fiscal year 2021 without receiving more information about how costs and revenues will be affected by the carrier’s plans to pare service of its long-distance trains and reduce its workforce by 20 percent.

In three separate letters to Amtrak President William Flynn, 16 senators expressed concerns with Amtrak’s plans to reduce the frequency of service on nearly all long-distance trains to less than daily starting Oct. 1.

Amtrak plans in early July to reduce the frequency of operation of the Silver Star and Silver Meteor in the New York-Miami corridor to less than daily operation.

The letters were written by nine Republican and seven Democratic senators from Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Indiana.

One of the letters, written by Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) seeks the data Amtrak is using to justify reducing most long-distance trains to tri-weekly operation as well as the benchmarks that will trigger a specific plan for reinstating daily trains.

“We would like to ensure that reductions in frequencies for long-distance routes do not unnecessarily extend beyond the COVID-19 crisis,” the letter said.

Steve Daines (R-Montana) and other senators said Amtrak’s proposal “raises serious doubts about whether a realistic plan exists for fully restoring service in a timely fashion.”

The letters have been critical of less than daily service, saying it will hurt hundreds of communities that rely on Amtrak.

Another letter asked what the passenger carrier would consider to be “adequate funding” needed to to restore frequencies.

Flynn has said little in public about the proposed service cuts, which became known when a memorandum written by Amtrak Vice President Roger Harris to Amtrak employees was leaked.

During an interview Monday morning that was livestreamed by on YouTube by The Washington Post, Flynn said little about the planned cuts.

He said Oct. 1 date was chosen because Amtrak experiences its lowest ridership during the winter in the long distance network.

Without being specific, Flynn said Amtrak will evaluate the long-distance trains, including unidentified indicators.

Flynn said this review would look at restoration on a service-by-service plan ahead. He noted that summer is when the long-distance trains enjoy their highest levels of ridership.

“We’re looking at bookings and level of ridership; we’ll just have to look at where we are in terms of COVID-19 and the pandemic — God forbid there is a second wave,” he said.

Although he didn’t provide any details, Flynn said Amtrak would be communicating to Congress its criteria and plans for restoring long-distance service.

House Committee Completes Markup on Transportation Authorization Bill

June 20, 2020

The House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure completed a markup this week of the $494 billion INVEST in American Act, which is the proposal by committee Democrats to create a reauthorization of surface transportation programs to replace a current authorization that expires on Sept. 30.

The INVEST legislation would authorize $58 billion in rail operations over the next five years and provide a series of reforms to Amtrak’s governance, operations, and onboard services.

Political observers, though, do not expect the bill to become law. The Senate is expected to adopt its own legislation and difference between the two bills will need to be hashed out in a conference committee.

Republican members of the House committee named the Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform, Technology, & Efficient Review Act.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), the ranking GOP member of the House Transportation Committee, described the Democratic bill as a nonstarter.

Graves said the GOP proposal is a five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill that reflects Republican surface transportation principles.

During the markup sessions, Republicans took exception to some climate change programs introduced by Democrats that the latter said were designed to reduce carbon emissions.

The committee also considered hundreds of amendments, and adopted 34 Republican amendments and 23 Democratic amendments.

Among the amendments approved was a proposal to reinstate the recently eliminated dining car service on Amtrak long-distance routes.

It also adopted an amendment to eliminates $100 million per year in funding from Amtrak’s National Network authorization in a newly created fund designed to help states cover the costs of providing state-supported services.

Instead that funding is to be transferred to a program to subsidize loans to freight rail and passenger rail projects.

The INVEST Act bill will now move to the House floor on June 30 where House leaders want to see it adopted before the July 4th recess.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is working on its own surface transportation authorization legislation.

There is some thought in Washington that pressure building on various front for an infrastructure investment bill may help pave the way for passage of the surface transportation legislation.

The Trump administration has suggested a $1 trillion infrastructure plan but has not released details about what it might include.

Congressional Democrats will seek to merger the INVEST in America Act into a larger $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan designed to provide economic stimulus and hoping to work with the Trump administration to find a compromise package that works for both parties.

Yes, They Might Be Out to Get Them

June 19, 2020

The service cuts that Amtrak plans to make on Oct. 1 remind me of the old phrase “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

In the rail passenger advocacy and railfan communities – they are not necessarily the same thing even if there is some overlap – there long have been paranoid types who think Amtrak, Congress, the Department of Transportation, the highway lobby, conservative think tanks and goodness knows who else is out to kill the long-distance passenger train.

Those fears are not necessarily unfounded because there are a lot of people in government and in the transportation field who believe long-distance passenger trains long ago outlived their purpose.

Chat lists are ablaze with talk about this being the beginning of the apocalypse of the long-distance passenger train after a memo written by Amtrak vice president Roger Harris to employees was leaked.

Harris wrote in the memo that most long-distance trains will be reduced to tri-weekly operation on Oct. 1, the first day of federal fiscal year 2021. The exception is the Silver Meteor, which will operate quad weekly. The Auto Train will continue to operate daily.

The memo contends that Amtrak remains “committed” to the national network and as ridership recovers from sharp drops triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic recession that the intercity passenger carrier will restore daily service to the long-distance trains, possibly by next summer.

Harris framed the move as saving money and a political necessity, saying Congress will not continue to fund Amtrak if trains are running largely empty as they have in the past couple of months.

He probably fears – correctly by the way – that as Amtrak funding is debated in Congress that photographs and videos of near empty coaches will begin showing up regularly in some media channels along with talk of a colossal waste of public money.

Some have questioned whether Amtrak’s real motivation is to drive down ridership, run up losses and then point to those as justification for eliminating the long distance trains.

There is some reason to think this could be about to play out. Former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson was outspoken in his disdain for the long-distance network even as he talked about retaining some “experiential” service that he never got around to defining.

Another Amtrak vice president, Stephen Gardner, also has been critical of long-distance trains, describing them as relics of another era.

Anderson and Gardner, and perhaps Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia, favored a different Amtrak made up of corridor services between urban areas, particularly in the South and West.

Before the pandemic began, Amtrak had done spade work in seeking to interest state legislators in supporting Amtrak’s plans to ask Congress for a pot of money to be used to seed the development of these corridors.

Amtrak would front the initial capital costs and help underwrite operating losses for a few years before the states would be expected to pay for the services in the same way that states pay for corridor services today.

But the pandemic and the recession changed everything.

There are some who believe the announcement of plans to operate most long-distance trains on tri-weekly schedules is a political ploy to prod Congress into giving Amtrak an additional $1.4 billion for FY2021 on top of what the carrier has already requested.

Amtrak CEO William Flynn said in a May 25 letter to Congress that long distance trains would operate less than daily even with the additional $1.4 billion and would be “at risk” without it.

The Rail Passengers Association has been sending out emails to its members since the Harris memo leaked asking them to demand that Congress approve the additional $1.4 billion and mandate that long-distance trains now operating daily continue to do so.

I wrote in an earlier post that getting that extra $1.4 billion is going to be tough for Amtrak to pull off during a recession when Congress is inundated with requests for money from suffering organizations and government entities asking their Uncle Sam to help them survive.

If anything, Amtrak might be denied the supplemental appropriation and forced to take an across-the-board cut in FY2021 funding as legislators talk about the need for “sacrifices for the greater good.”

State governments are already cutting spending for their next fiscal years and such programs as education are seeing funding cuts.

Some states that now fund Amtrak corridor services have reduced their spending on them.

It remains to be seen how the politics of the appropriations process will play out this summer during a presidential election year.

Congress often fails to approve a budget before the current one expires and keeps the government running through continuing resolutions that effectively maintain the status quo for a few weeks while negotiations continue.

Long-distance trains have continued to operate daily because Amtrak received emergency aid last spring. That money runs out in late September.

At this point it is difficult to see how the long-distance trains will survive the summer unscathed no matter how many letters, phone calls, texts, emails, social media posts or op ed columns that passenger train advocates create.

At some point it might get down to a choice of tri-weekly service or service suspensions.

In theory the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans was “suspended” after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It has yet to return and probably won’t now except as maybe a state-funded service over a portion of its route.

Amtrak’s long-distance trains have survived so many budget battles over the past 49 years that it could be easy to think they will always be there because they always have been.

Maybe this will turn out to be like every other battle and the trains will somehow survive intact. And maybe there is something about this go around that is different from all of those other struggles to save the long-distance trains.

RPA Fighting Amtrak Plans to Reduce Service

May 30, 2020

The Rail Passengers Association is launching a lobbying campaign to try to persuade Congress to approve the supplemental $1.475 billion in funding that Amtrak is seeking in fiscal year 2021 from Congress.

That money would be on top of the passenger carrier’s regular funding request for the FY2021.

The passenger advocacy group said that it will seek to prod Congress to approve the funding with statutory mandates that service continue to operate daily on routes where that is now the case.

A letter from Amtrak President William Flynn said that even with the supplemental appropriation all but one of Amtrak’s long-distance routes would be reduced to less than daily operation.

Without the supplemental funding, Flynn warned, all of the long-distance routes are “at risk,” which presumably means of being suspended or discontinued.

RPA is appealing to its members to contact members of Congress to demand daily service and to protect Amtrak’s workforce.

The carrier has said it expects to reduce its workforce by 20 percent.

Flynn’s letter has draw a sharp rebuke from Rep. Dan Lipinski, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads.

In a statement, Lipinski was particularly critical of Amtrak’s plans to cut its workforce.

The statement cited the $1 billion that Amtrak received from the CARES Act.

“It was my understanding that Amtrak did not plan to furlough any workers due to COVID-19,” Lipinski said.

RPA said Flynn’s letter left a number of unanswered questions including how Amtrak could restore service to pre-pandemic levels if one in five employees will be gone either through voluntary retirement or furlough.

Other unanswered questions are what level of less than daily service Amtrak envisions for its long-distance trains whether it would be every other day, five days a week or tri-weekly.

RPA is calling for Amtrak to explain how much the carrier expects to save with less than daily service, how much revenue would be lost and what threshold of ridership would trigger full restoration to daily service.

The rail passenger advocacy group said Congress should up the supplemental funding for Amtrak to at least $1.5 billion for a total of $3.54 billion in total funding on the condition that clear protections for passengers and workers imposed.

Amtrak Board Nominees Advance 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.

House Aid Bill Has Some Transit Funding, But Omits Amtrak Funding, Infrastructure Boost

May 16, 2020

A $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that passed the House on a largely party line vote on Friday contained some funding for public transit systems but fell well short of what those agencies were seeking.

The legislation, which is opposed by Senate Republicans, also declined to include additional funding for Amtrak that the carrier had sought.

The American Public Transit Association had been seeking $23.8 billion but the House bill allocated just $15.75 billion for transit.

Amtrak had sought $1.63 billion but was shut out. That funding was in addition to the $2.04 billion Amtrak is seeking in its regular grant request for federal fiscal year 2021.

Also omitted from the bill was an infrastructure program that some have been seeking as a pay to kick start the economy.

The House bill, which was named the HEROES Act, is the fourth emergency pandemic funding bill taken up in Congress.

Transit Agencies Seek More Emergency Aid

May 10, 2020

Leaders of 15 public transit agencies have written to Congress seeking additional emergency aid for public transportation.

The letter was signed by the heads of agencies in Cleveland, Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Newark, Oakland (California), Washington, Miami, Atlanta, and San Carlos (California.).

The letter did not specify a dollar amount but in a news release the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York said its estimates show transit agencies in the United States need $32 billion to enable them to get through the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.

The Rail Passengers Association said on Friday the American Public Transportation Association wrote a similar letter seeking $23.8 billion in emergency assistance.

That funding would be divided into $19 billion provided through the Emergency Relief Program, which would be distributed proportionally to all public transit agencies with a demonstrated need; and $4.75 billion provided through Urbanized Area Formula Grants, Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities Formula Grants; and Rural Area Formula Grants.

There would be no required local of state match of the funding.

The letter from the transit agencies said they need the aid to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and would supplement the $25 billion in emergency aid Congress approved for public transportation in March.

The letter said since that aide was approved, “a fuller picture has emerged of  . . . losses from dedicated transportation revenue streams, such as farebox, sales taxes, motor fuel taxes, tolls, mortgage-related taxes and other user fees.”

The letter said the usual funding sources for public transportation have taken “a massive hit.”

The transit heads said their systems will not be able to support the regions they serve without replenishing those losses.

“Our regions cannot recover without public transportation, and the nation cannot recover without resurgent economies in our regions,” the letter said.

Congress Split on Adding Infrastructure Program to Future Pandemic Legislation

May 10, 2020

Congressional leaders in recent weeks have taken contrasting positions on whether an infrastructure program will become part of any future COVID-19 pandemic relief legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes combining the two, telling news reporters that he doesn’t want to borrow money from future generations to pay for an infrastructure plan because it’s unrelated to the pandemic.

He did say he has an interest in doing an infrastructure bill.

On the other hand, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio said addressing the infrastructure is a necessary component of addressing an economic recession that could turn into the next Great Depression without decisive action.

“[The] best way to re-start our economy and put workers first is with a massive investment in the kind of infrastructure that will help future generations succeed—from better bridges and roads, to robust transit and passenger rail service, to fully-functioning ports and harbors, to modernized waste and drinking water systems, and widely available broadband internet,” DeFazio said.