Posts Tagged ‘House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’

Going Inside Flynn’s Congress Testimony

September 11, 2020

Amtrak President William Flynn had a lot to say this week during his first appearance before Congress, which was in large part a plea for more money to overcome the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his prepared statement, Flynn said Amtrak projects it will lose $1.266 billion in ticket sales in federal fiscal year 2020, which would be 55 percent of what it earned in FY2019.

Amtrak’s recovery from the pandemic has been slow and ridership and revenue are still down more than 80 percent compared to a year ago.

“It has become clear that the pandemic’s impacts will extend through, and almost certainly beyond, FY2021 as well, and Amtrak, along with our state partners, are now working to plan for the year ahead,” he said.

You probably have read or heard by now how he said the railroad needs $4.9 billion in federal fiscal year 2021 in order to stave off its planned service cuts to all long-distance trains except the Auto Train.

But buried in his prepared remarks to the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was this comment about the economics of long-distance passenger trains:

“ . . . in normal times they cover most of the out-of-pocket costs such as fuel, commissary supplies, host railroad payments, and wages and benefits for on-board employees that are incurred by each train that operates over a route.

“Therefore, operating service three times a week rather than daily ordinarily would not produce significant and immediate cash saving.”

That, in essence, is what some critics of the Amtrak’s plans to its long-distance network on a less than daily basis have been saying all along.

So why is Amtrak reducing the scope of long-distance service?

Flynn framed it as a matter of diminished ridership and revenue.

“In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hoped that passenger demand would increase appreciably on long-distance routes during what is normally their peak summer season.”

But he said that didn’t happen because of the reluctance of the public to travel during the pandemic.

Ridership of long-distance trains in June and July, excluding the Auto Train, was down by two-thirds compared with the same months of 2019.

“The two-thirds reduction in revenues has had a major impact on long-distance financial performance,” he said.

Flynn said that the long-distance trains lost $475 million in FY 2019 and without providing specific figures said these trains “are incurring huge, additional operating losses for each train we operate –for the benefit of just a third of the normal number of passengers.

“Given that, we felt that it would be irresponsible to continue spending a much larger share of our limited funding to provide the same frequency of service for a much smaller number of remaining passengers, particularly as we entered the fall/winter season when monthly long distance ridership normally declines up to 40 percent from the summer peak.”

The Amtrak president repeatedly in his prepared remarks sought to frame the reduction in long-distance service as temporary.

“One thing I want to make absolutely clear: These long-distance frequency reductions are temporary,” Flynn said. “We are committed to continuing to operate our current long distance network and to improving the service we provide to our long distance passengers.”

He reiterated that another time when he said, “As ridership returns, we intend to restore service frequency to previous levels. We remain committed to our long distance system.”

Not everyone will take that comment at face value. Many skeptics want to believe the service cuts are part of a nefarious strategy to discontinue long-distance passenger routes in favor of corridor services that would be paid for by state and local governments.

The Rail Passengers Association and other rail passenger advocates have been trying to argue that daily operation of long-distance trains is an essential public service during the pandemic.

For now it appears that keeping all of the long-distance trains except the Cardinal and Sunset Limited – which have operated tri-weekly for years – on daily schedules hinges upon Congress giving Amtrak nearly $5 billion for FY2021.

Flynn’s prepared statement suggested that not only does Amtrak want additional money it also seems to want a mandate from Congress ordering it to keep long-distance trains operating daily.

“We will do as directed by Congress,” Flynn said. “If that $4.9 billion instructs us to rescind the furloughs and rescind the service cuts, we’ll do that.”

If no additional funding is forthcoming and Amtrak implements the long-distance train service reductions as planned, Flynn said Amtrak would evaluate ridership and revenue of those trains in February.

He recited in his statement the criteria for restoration of daily service that Amtrak proclaimed in a white paper published about a month ago.

His statement hinted that restoration of daily service would be undertaken on an individual route basis and some trains might not resume daily operation until FY2022.

“If any route is not yet ready to be restored when we conduct our [February 2021] review, we will apply an updated version of the criteria  . . . as part of our FY 2022 planning cycle or sooner, in the event of a dramatic improvement in demand prior to that point,” he said.

It is noteworthy that Flynn also said the future of Amtrak’s long-distance network hinges upon Congress providing capital funding to buy new equipment, saying the equipment used on long-distance trains is more than 40 years old and has reached the end of its useful life.

That equipment must be replaced “if we are to maintain current long-distance service.”

Flynn also called on Congress to give Amtrak the legal tools to argue that passenger trains deserve preference in dispatching over freight trains.

“The greatest threat to the future of our long-distance network is not COVID-19, but rather poor on-time performance that diminishes the value of these services to our customers,” he said.

“The leading cause of delays to our long distance trains is the failure of some of our host railroads to comply with this longstanding legal obligation to provide Amtrak trains with preference over their tracks.”

Amtrak’s host railroads, of course, would have a different view of the matter, but conflict with its host railroads has been going for decades and figures to last a long time.

Flynn was optimistic about Amtrak’s future, but didn’t present much of a vision as to what he sees as the role of intercity rail passenger in America.

Missing from his comments was the sometimes strident and caustic tone that his predecessor, Richard Anderson, sometimes displayed.

He touched on how long-distance trains lose money without dwelling on those losses or villifying those trains. At the same time his commitment to the long-distance network was less a ringing endorsement than a description of something that Amtrak does.

It was, of course, just the first of what are likely to be many statements that Flynn will make to Congress so we should probably avoid reading too much into this statement, which also was delivered under some of the most adverse circumstances any Amtrak head has faced.

As always, though, the fate of Amtrak is up to Congress.

 

 

Amtrak Wants $4.9B for FY2021

September 10, 2020

Amtrak has named its price of keeping long distance trains running daily and preventing employee furloughs: $4.9 billion.

William Flynn

Amtrak President told a congressional committee on Wednesday that Amtrak would need that much in federal fiscal year 2021 to avoid service cuts and job furloughs.

Flynn told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Rail Subcommittee that Amtrak is experiencing a “cash burn” of nearly $250 million a month right now.

Without supplemental funding, Flynn said Amtrak “would have to make very dramatic reductions across the company to stave off bankruptcy.”

Those would include even more substantial service cuts than it has already imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the planned reductions in frequency of most long-distance trains to tri-weekly operation in October.

Flynn said some long-distance trains would cease operating “if that’s the cash burn we’re having with no supplemental funding.”

During his testimony, Flynn argued that Amtrak generates a surplus in the Northeast Corridor and breaks even on state-funded corridor service but loses money on long-distance trains.

“So the vast majority, if not all, of that subsidy, if we were to do it on a service line basis, would be on the long-distance service,” Flynn said.

Flynn faced sharp criticism from some committee members over such things as Amtrak’s plans to reinstate making contributions to the 401K plans of top managers effective Oct. 1 and a request for proposals for communications services that would allow bidders to shift jobs outside the United States.

The Amtrak president defended the 401K contributions as necessary to keep key employees from leaving the company, but agreed to withdraw the request for proposals that would allow offshoring.

Committee Chair Dan Lipinski also rebuked Amtrak for not submitting a supplemental appropriations request to Congress for FY2021 until this week.

He noted that congressional staffers have been asking Amtrak since June to no avail for a figure of how much it would take to prevent the service cuts to long-distance trains and avoid employee furloughs.

Lipinski noted that the next federal fiscal year begins in less than a month.

Earlier this year Amtrak sought $2.04 billion for FY2021. In late May the passenger carrier told Congress it would need another $1.4 billion to avoid service cuts.

However, that supplemental request was based on the premise that most long-distance trains would operate less than daily starting in October.

In the meantime, a budget for FY2021 adopted by the House includes $10 billion for Amtrak with a mandate to keep the long-distance trains operating daily.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, said in his prepared statement that reducing the frequency of operation of long-distance trains to three times a week would result in a $2 billion economic loss to the communities served by those trains.

Mathews’ figures were based on a model developed in part by Transportation 4 America.

RPA has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has depressed Amtrak revenue by 83 percent compared with the same period last year and that travel on all modes of public transportation has fallen precipitously.

But Mathews contended that Amtrak service is essential, particularly in some of the smaller communities the intercity passenger carrier serves.

Flynn also said during his testimony that Amtrak has no plans to furlough workers at its Beech Grove shops located near Indianapolis.

He said Amtrak had to hire additional workers at Beech Grove after some employees took a buyout offer.

Committee to Discuss Amtrak Service

September 9, 2020

A congressional committee will hear testimony today on Amtrak’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its plans to reduce frequency of service on most long-distance trains to three times a week.

The hearing is being held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

It is slated to start at 11 a.m. and will be carried live on the committee’s YouTube Channel.

Amtrak President William Flynn is expected to testify along with Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association.

RPA and other rail passenger advocates have opposed the plan to reduce the frequency of service of long-distance trains and Mathews told the group’s members in an email message this week that his testimony will seek to show that daily operation of those trains is good for the U.S. economy.

In the meantime, a report posted on a railfan chat list showed an Amtrak document that has downward projections of ridership in federal fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

Amtrak now expects ridership in the Northeast Corridor to be 34 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

The carrier projects that state-funded corridor ridership will be 41 percent of pre-pandemic levels and long-distance ridership will be 35 percent.

Amtrak said it will need $5 billion in operating support for the fiscal year and another $5 billion in capital funding for equipment purchases and debt 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.

Amtrak Funding Would Triple Under Proposed Bill

June 3, 2020

Amtrak funding would triple under a five-year transportation plan released by some members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The plan, known as the “INVEST in America Act,” would authorize almost $500 billion for infrastructure, including $60 billion for rail projects.

Of the $494 billion in funding authorized by the legislation, $319 billion or 65 percent would go toward highway-related projects.

The bill contains $105 billion for transit, $29 billion for Amtrak, and a new $19 billion grant program devoted entirely to passenger rail projects.

Funding for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program would be $7 billion for passenger and freight projects, and a new $2.5 billion grant program for grade-crossing improvements.

The bill is being pushed by Democratic members of the committee and drew immediate criticism from three Republican members.

The GOP members, who were not involved in drafting the bill, said as proposed the bill would not provide enough flexibility for states and would favor urban areas over rural regions.

Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation defended the bill by describing it as transformational legislation that would move the nation into a new era of planning, building and improving U.S. infrastructure.

The proposed legislation would prohibit Amtrak from imposing mandatory arbitration in ticket policies, mandate an improved methodology and increase transparency in the process Amtrak uses to determine the how much states pay for corridor services.

Amtrak would also be directed to offer reduced fares for certain groups, including veterans and current members of the military and their families, and be required to provide access to hot meals for all passengers traveling overnight and not just those in sleeper class.

The outsourcing of onboard food and beverage service would be banned and Amtrak would have to create a working group to issue a report within a year on how to improve food and beverage service.

As for other railroads, the bill would require use of two-person crews on freight trains with some exemptions for short lines.

The U.S. Department of Transportation would be directed to develop a national strategy to deal with the delays at grade crossings, saying crossings should not be blocked for more than 10 minutes at a time.

The DOT special permits allowing transport of liquefied natural gas by tank car would be rescinded and DOT would be prohibited from issuing any further permits until the agency has further studied the safety of the matter.

The Government Accountability would be directed to conduct a study on the effect of precision scheduled railroading on shippers as well as s study on the safety issues of trains longer than 7,500 feet.

House Draft Transportation Bill Due Before Summer

January 11, 2020

A draft surface transportation bill is expected to be released by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure before summer but not this month as reported earlier.

Committee Chair Peter DeFazio said the committee would “release more specifics in the not-too-distant future.” He did not elaborate on when that would be.

The current law that authorizes spending on highways, transit, and passenger rail programs expires on Sept. 30.

“This is like the beginning of the beginning of the year,” DeFazio said. “We’re talking about the middle of the beginning of the year. That’s earlier than June but later than January.”

In the meantime the Senate Finance Committee has been considering its own surface transportation legislation and has found finding new revenue to be a struggle.

A draft highway reauthorization bill the committee is considering calls for spending $287 billion on highways but stagnant revenue in the Highway Trust Fund means the committee is $113 billion short of paying for the proposed authorization.

Legislation in the Senate reauthorizing public transit and passenger rail is not expected to be drafted until later this year.

House Democrats Might Push Reauthorization Bill

November 17, 2019

Democratic members of the federal House of Representatives in Washington are talking about going ahead with a surface transportation reauthorization proposal early next year.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) has discussed the idea with Democrats on the committee and hopes to meet with Senate leaders late next spring to resolve differences between the two proposals.

The Senate has already approved a highway proposal but not acted on reauthorizing or funding public transit or rail transportation.

Infrastructure spending has been talked about periodically in recent years including by President Donald Trump.

But talks between the administration and Congress over an infrastructure package have stalled.

With the 2020 election campaign season heating up candidates can be expected to push their own infrastructure proposals in the coming weeks and months.

Infrastructure Plan Might be Out by May

March 15, 2019

If its members can agree on funding, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee might report an infrastructure bill by May.

 “I know May is probably a little ambitious, but that’s our goal,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Illinois, the ranking member of the subcommittee on highways and transit.

Among the funding options committee members are eying are raising the gas tax and a new vehicle-miles traveled tax to capture revenue from electric vehicles.

Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-California, has suggested creation of a federal infrastructure bank “that will provide low interest loans to states and municipalities so that they can build.”

Aside from agreement on funding, another source of delay could be work on reauthorizing the FAST Act, which expires in 2020.

Some believe that getting that reauthorization as well as an infrastructure plan through Congress in the current session of Congress could be a tall order.

If the infrastructure bill is completed by May the odds increase that both pieces of legislation could be addressed separately.

Infrastructure Funding Getting Fresh Look in Congress

February 14, 2019

Senate and House committees have begun to review legislation to provide additional transportation infrastructure.

Last week the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first hearing on infrastructure needs.

Among those testifying was Amtrak President Richard Anderson.

The Senate Commerce Committee convened a hearing this week with a similar focus.

Some believe that the need to extend the expiring Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act will serve as an impetus to prod Congress into adopting an infrastructure program.

The law, which expires on Sept. 30, 2020, provides grants and loans for transportation programs.

Another sense of urgency is the condition of the Highway Trust Fund, which is flirting with insolvency.

Funded by the federal gas tax, that has been declining and Congress has diverted $144 billion from general funds since 2008 to keep the HTF going.

The Congressional Budget Office projects the HTF will exhaust its funds in 2021.

Congress has been split on how to infuse cash into the HTF. Some have favored an increase in the gas tax, which has not risen since 1993.

But others are calling for other measures, such as a tax on vehicle miles traveled.

The Trump administration last year suggested raising the gas tax by 25 cents, which might be an indication that the political pressure against raising it is abating.

Anderson Urges Funding for NEC Infrastructure

February 10, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson doesn’t like to give interviews to news reporters or make many speeches in which he illustrates his vision of Amtrak.

He gave, though a glimpse of that last week during a congressional hearing infrastructure.

Anderson told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee “there are changes we need to make in our network and the way we do business to modernize from a ‘70s railroad to a railroad that will meet the demand of Millennials today.”

Anderson said that means meeting the demand that “is clearly there for additional short corridor service throughout the U.S, [including] both additional frequencies for existing routes and establishing new routes between city pairs.”

Anderson also addressed the future of Amtrak’s Beech Grove shops near Indianapolis.

After saying the carrier had no plans to close the facility or reduce its workforce, Anderson said, “but as we go down that process we have to be very mindful of its impact on our people.”

Anderson said Amtrak maintains equipment at several facilities, some of which it is in the process of rebuilding.

This includes facilities in Seattle; Oakland, California; New York (Sunnyside Yard); and Washington (Ivy City Engine Terminal).

“Over time, we have to re-fleet the Amtrak rolling stock,” Anderson said, “ . . . and over the longer term we have to figure out where we are going to do our maintenance work.

“I think the footprint is going to change over time because we’re moving to more modern equipment.”

Much of Anderson’s testimony focused on the need to rebuild bridges and tunnels in the Northeast Corridor.

Anderson warned that the failure of this infrastructure near New York “would effectively shut down economic activity in Manhattan” and “cut off (rail travel) from Maine to North Carolina and down to Florida.”

Saying the federal government has never had “an appetite to invest in the infrastructure up and down the Northeast Corridor,” Anderson said the Baltimore tunnels were dedicated by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873.

“That’s typical of what we see in the Corridor, the spine of the Northeast,” Anderson said.

Amtrak has plans in place for such projects as replacement of the Portal Bridge in New Jersey and the North River tunnels under the Hudson River.

“There’s an inevitability that this is going to get built,” Anderson said. “So why [do] we spend all this time gyrating around? It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s an American issue, and what we ought to do is just fund it.”

The purpose of the hearing at which Anderson spoke was described by Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio of Oregon as an opportunity to sound “the alarm bells” for why investing in the nation’s transportation infrastructure can’t wait.

Passenger rail was not the only infrastructure need discussed. Committee members also called for investment in highways, waterways, ports, and airports.