Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

Committee Says Amtrak Ignoring Congressional Intent

June 4, 2019

A House appropriations committee has criticized Amtrak for ignoring congress intent on such matters as long-distance trains and station agents.

The committee overseeing the Fiscal year 2020 bill appropriating money for transportation and housing called on Amtrak to maintain a national long-distance network that improves transportation options for rural areas and serves stations staffed with station agents.

The Rail Passengers Association reported that the language was included in a report in advance of a mark-up session for the bill set for today (June 4).

In the report, the committee also took aim at what it termed foot dragging on grants by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The committee said that contrary to congressional direction DOT has set up new Amtrak grant conditions that would give the FRA too much influence over Amtrak’s capital spending decisions.

“[T]he Committee strongly reminds Amtrak that section 24701 of title 49, United States Code, requires Amtrak to operate a national passenger rail system. Further, the Committee directs Amtrak to seek any potential changes to the National Network through the reauthorization of the FAST Act, and urges Amtrak to ensure any such proposals also increase ridership in rural areas and improve service for long-distance customers.”

The report directs Amtrak to “conduct comprehensive outreach and consultation” with a range of stakeholders.

Lawmakers were apparently acting in response to reports that Amtrak wants to chop up long-distance routes into a series of short-haul corridors and/or discontinue service altogether on some routes.

The Trump administration in a budget proposal released earlier this year called for replacing long-distance trains with bus service.

“The Committee rejects this proposal and provides strong funding for Amtrak to continue to provide service through long-distance and state-supported routes.”

The administration has recommended a Restoration and Enhancement Grants program would be used to gut Amtrak’s national network in such a way as to make states pay for intercity passenger rail.

Amtrak has contended that it wants to increase service to under-served areas and start service in areas that now lack intercity rail passenger trains.

The House committee said this “could have unintended consequences for long-distance customers, especially in rural and small communities where passenger rail serves as an important mobility option and economic driver.”

In calling for Amtrak to do a better job of communicating with stakeholders, the committee raised concerns that the passenger carrier “continues to make and implement changes to operations and services without providing the public or its employees adequate time to understand proposed changes and provide feedback.”

It cited changes in rules pertaining to private railroad cars, station ticket agents, call centers, law enforcement, and food and beverage service.

The report calls for Amtrak to provide a station agent in each station that had a ticket agent position eliminated in fiscal year 2018.

It also expressed concerns with the way Amtrak has handled implementing and communicating its guidelines last year for private rail cars, saying the carrier “does not typically inform private car owners when a private car caused a delay to an Amtrak train.”

House Committee Favors Amtrak Funding Boost

May 27, 2019

A House committee has recommended a slight funding boost for Amtrak in federal fiscal year 2020.

The House Appropriations Committee on Transportation and Housing last week released its transportation budget for FY 2020, which calls for $146 million for passenger rail and $60 million for transit compared with the funding approved for fiscal year 2019.

Amtrak’s national network would receive $1.2 billion, the same as it received in the current fiscal year. The Trump administration had recommended $661 million.

Northeast Corridor funding would rise to $700 million compared to $650 million appropriated in FY2019. The administration had recommended $325 million.

The committee also attached some policy riders in its budget including a provision directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to case seeking to claw back funds already awarded for the California high-speed rail network that is under construction.

U.S. DOT was also directed to stop dragging its feet on certain rail and transit grant programs. A clause was inserted in the legislation directing that if funds for transit grant programs aren’t awarded to new project by the end of 2021 those funds should be channeled to projects already in the engineering phase.

Talks to Resume on Infrastructure Plan

May 19, 2019

Talks between Congress and the Trump administration over a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan are expected to resume on May 22.

The session is expected to include President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The trio had announced the infrastructure proposal following an April 30 meeting. However, Republican Congressional leaders have reacted coolly toward the plan with some questioning where the funding would come from.

One proposal has been an increase in the federal gasoline tax, but GOP leaders have signaled they won’t support that.

Some in Congress on sides of the aisle have expressed skepticism that there is enough time to get a bill approved before the end of July.

“It’s premature for me to think we’re going to get something on the floor until we have something to get on the floor, and we haven’t gotten there yet,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. “It would be unrealistic to expect next week, one meeting everybody agrees.”

91 Congressmen Want Answers From Anderson

March 4, 2019

Ninety-one members of Congress have a few bones to pick with Amtrak.

The representatives recently sent a letter to Amtrak President Richard Anderson posing a series of questions about certain facets of Amtrak service, including changes made in the past year that have triggered protest.

The letter, which was created by House Transportation & Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and House T&I Railroad Subcommittee Chair Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) came in response to news reports that Amtrak will propose expanding corridor service in the Southeast and West at the expense of long-distance routes.

Among other things the letter also asks about such moves as removing full-service dining from the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited last June, the closing of numerous ticket offices across the country, and changes to fees and policies pertaining to the carriage of privately-owned rail passenger cars.

The 11-page letter contains three pages of observations and questions with most of it devoted to the signatures of the 91 signers, which included 88 Democrats and three Republicans.

Other matters raised in the letter include changes made at reservation call centers and expected changes to maintenance facilities.

The letter cited a statutory responsibility that Amtrak has to provide a national intercity passenger rail network “that includes state-supported and long-distance routes in addition to the (Northeast Corridor).”

The legislators asked Anderson to respond by March 8.

Amtrak Eyeing Major Revamp of Its Route Network

February 22, 2019

The big news concerning Amtrak this week was a report in the Wall Street Journal that Amtrak plans to revamp its route network to emphasize new corridors, primarily in the South and West.

The Journal quoted an unnamed Amtrak official as saying: “We are undertaking a major rethinking of the national network and how we offer service on the national network. That study and planning isn’t done yet, and we aren’t prepared to announce any plans or recommendations yet—those will come in our reauthorization proposal.”

The newspaper report said the route restructuring is being prompted in part by a need to replace or retire the aging Superliner fleet devoted to most long-distance trains.

Another factor is that Amtrak must be reauthorized by Congress later this year.

Amtrak officials have been hinting for at least a year at a change in the carrier’s business focus.

During a speech in California, Amtrak President Richard Anderson described the long-distance trains as experiential.

Anthony Coscia, the chairman of the Amtrak board of directors, told the Rail Passengers Association in a meeting last May that in the long term the overall shape of Amtrak’s national network is likely due to population shifts, demographic trends and economic growth.

Coscia expressed Amtrak’s desire to develop corridor routes with strong potential for growth in unserved or lightly served areas.

Writing on the Trains magazine website, columnist Fred Frailey said the implication of the report by the Wall Street Journal is that Amtrak wants to operate daylight service between large city pairs.

Frailey quoted at length the remarks of Amtrak’s Stephen Gardner, a senior executive vice president, at the Rail Trends meeting in New York City last November.

“We’re looking at a different America. They do not live half in the city and half in the country,” Gardner said. “Now the vast majority live in major metropolitan areas. And those metro areas are shifting. The Northeast will be a net loser.

“Where growth is happening is in the South, Mountain West and West. And guess who lives in those metro areas? It’s Millennials, by far.”

Gardner went on to say that this has resulted in a mismatch between population density, transportation demand and Amtrak’s current network.

Frailey speculated that what ultimately may occur is that some of Amtrak’s long-distance routes will be split into segments operating during the daytime.

He cited the example of the Chicago-New Orleans route, which might be broken into Chicago-Memphis and New Orleans-Memphis segments.

AAR Calls for Gax Tax Hike, Highway User Fees

February 16, 2019

The Association of American Railroads is calling for an increase in the federal gasoline tax as well as a user-based fee system in an effort to maintain the fiscal viability of the Highway Trust Fund.

The recommendations were contained in the trade group’s national infrastructure priorities for 2019.

Not surprisingly, AAR wants Congress to reject efforts to increase the permissible weight and length limits on trucks. AAR has long opposed increased in those limits.

Other items on the AAR wish list include maintaining a balanced structure of economic regulation, streamlining the infrastructure project permitting process, promoting private partnerships and supporting the Section 130 program to improve grade crossings.

New Congress, Old Priorities for Rail Industry

February 12, 2019

It may be a new Congress, but the railroad industry is continuing to push old priorities in Washington.

An analysis by Progressive Railroading magazine said among the priorities are a permanent extension of the 45G short-line tax credit, keeping existing truck size and weight restrictions, and approval of an infrastructure package that includes funding priority for freight and passenger rail.

How much the industry is able to get done is an open question given that the House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans.

Some railroad industry lobbyists say an environment of hyper partisanship combined with hard feelings lingering from the recent 35-day federal government shutdown will make it a challenge to create agreement on transportation policy.

Yet some are optimistic that an infrastructure plan might be a rare example of bi-partisan agreement, in part by trying to portray it as good for urban and rural communities.

The Rail Passengers Association is seeking to prod Congress into address the on-time woes of Amtrak trains by creating a a charter for a Shared-Use Corridor Advisory Committee to develop new “mutually satisfactory solutions” on Amtrak’s shared use of rail routes with its host railroads.

The committee would be similar to the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee and use a collaborative approach to find mutually agreeable solutions to safety regulatory issues.

Although most of industry’s legislative priorities have been around awhile, some new matters the industry is overseeing include discussing the potential regulation of precision scheduled railroading and automation.

“A huge amount of education is needed,” said Chuck Baker, the new president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

“A lot of these new members are interested in infrastructure, so we think we’ll have a friendly playing field,” he said.

The Association of American Railroads expects the trucking industry to again seek to get Congress to increase the weight and size limit of trucks.

AAR is calling for what it termed “reasonable” limits on truck size on interstate highways of 80,000 pounds in weight and no more than two 28-foot trailers in total length.

The trucking industry has been seeking to increase these limits through the use of pilot programs to test larger trucks.

The rail industry fears that these programs could lead to higher limits being made permanent at the national level.

An infrastructure program, though, lies at the top of legislative priorities.

Railroad interests are hoping for an infrastructure package coupled with reauthorization of the

Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015, which is set to expire in September 2020.

The reauthorization is expected to include funding for Amtrak and the Gateway/Hudson River tunnel projects in New York.

Lawmakers are also expected to debate funding of the Highway Trust Fund and its Mass Transit Account with those discussions focused in part on whether to increase the federal tax on gasoline that motorists pay at the pump.

Other funding alternatives for the HTF that are expected to be discussed include a general sales tax, a vehicle miles traveled fee and a per-barrel tax on crude oil.

Jim Mathews, president of RPA, said his group wants Congress to look at a variety of funding options, including a passenger-rail trust fund. “We think it’s about time that we had a predictable, dedicated source of funding for passenger rail,” he said.

5 Transportation Nominees Resubmitted to Senate

January 18, 2019

The Trump administration has resubmitted to Congress the names of five people who had been nominated for rail transportation federal leadership posts but whose appointments were not approved by the Senate before the 115th Congress permanently adjourned.

The nominees include three seats on the Amtrak board of directors, one seat on the Surface Transportation Board and an appointee to head the Federal Transit Administration.

Senate rules require nominations not acted upon during a two-year, congressional session to be returned to the White House for re-submission during the next session of Congress.

Those who have been nominated a second time include:

Rick A. Dearborn to the Amtrak board for a five-year term, succeeding former BNSF attorney Jeffrey R. Moreland, whose term expired, but who is in holdover status.

Joseph Ryan Gruters to the Amtrak board for a five-year term, succeeding Albert DiClemente, whose term expired, but who is in holdover status.

Leon A. Westmoreland to the Amtrak board for a five-year term to fill a vacant seat.

Michelle A. Schultz to be a member of the Surface Transportation Board for a five-year term to fill a still-vacant new seat created in 2015.

Thelma Drake to be Federal Transit Administrator, succeeding Peter M. Rogoff, who resigned in 2015.

All five nominations have already been considered by the applicable Senate oversight committees and all have been recommended for confirmation.

The decision to bring the nominations to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote is at the discretion of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The list of five nominees does not include a Democratic nominee for an STB seat vacated Dec. 31 by Deb Miller, who has been awaiting renomination to a second term for more than a year.

By law Miller must leave the agency following the expiration of her allowable holdover year. Miller is expected to be named by the White House to be re-appointed to the STB.

Congressional Transpo Committee Leaders Named

January 15, 2019

Additional leaders have been named for the transportation committees and subcommittees in the U.S. House and Senate for the 116th Congress.
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri) will serve as the ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Rep. Peter DeFrazio (D-Oregon) had been named last week as the committee charman.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) will become chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The committee’s ranking member will be Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington)

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) will chair the Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety.

Oregon Rep. Heads House Transportation Committee

January 13, 2019

An Oregon Congressman has assumed the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

U.S. Rep Peter DeFazio has been a member of the committee since 1987 when he joined Congress.

He has served as the ranking minority member of the committee since 2015 and moved up to chairman after Democrats took control of the House.

“We are approaching a transportation crisis in our country, and with that in mind, I am especially honored to have the strong support of my colleagues to lead the caucus as the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,” DeFazio said in a statement.

DeFazio said in the statement that he “will be a tireless advocate for the kind of infrastructure investment that results in job creation, increased economic growth, and decreased emissions” and that he “will work to build bipartisan agreement around legislation that strengthens the Federal responsibility for maintaining and providing access to transportation for all Americans.”