Posts Tagged ‘Senate Commerce Committee’

Committee Checks Amtrak Expansion Vision

June 27, 2021

The Senate Commerce Committee recently approved its own version of a new surface transportation authorization act.

The bill, known as the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021, would replace the FAST Act, which is set to expire on Sept. 30.

What is noteworthy about the Senate bill is how it differs in one key area from a House surface transportation bill approved two weeks earlier by a House transportation committee.

Although it boosts transportation funding generally and Amtrak funding in particular, the Senate bill would authorize far less money for both areas than the House bill.

That’s a critical point because much of the much ballyhooed Amtrak service expansion plans are premised on Congress approving a dedicated funding program to pay for that expansion.

The House bill does that but not so the Senate bill.

Before getting into the details about that, let’s get straight that both bills authorize spending but do not appropriate it. Those are separate processes and although they are related.

Think of the surface transportation bill as setting spending priorities that Congress will, presumably, follow.

As for those spending priorities, the Senate bill would authorize just 36 percent of what the House bill would authorize.

The Senate bill increased transportation funding for freight and passenger rail, but not as much as the House bill.

Over the five-year life of the Senate bill, transportation funding would be authorized at $34.2 billion. The current FAST Act level is $14.3 billion.

Missing from the Senate bill is the funding authorization for the grant program that Amtrak plans to use to develop its new corridor services.

The House bill would provide $25 billion for that while the Senate bill provides nothing.

Also in the House bill is $25 billion for grants for bridges, tunnels and stations. The Senate bill has no authorized funding for that grant program.

Senate authorizations for Amtrak funding in Senate bill are lower than in the House bill.

The Senate would authorize $6.6 billion for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and $10.7 billion for the passenger carrier’s national network.

The House bill figures are $13.5 billion for the Northeast Corridor and $18.5 billion for the national network.

The Rail Passengers Association asserted on its website that the authorizations in the Senate bill will be “inadequate to meaningfully add or upgrade new service beyond a handful of routes.”

That, though, may be the point of the Senate bill. It may be a statement from the Senate Commerce Committee that support for a massive spending spree to expand intercity rail passenger service lacks political support in that chamber.

It remains to be seen what will happen once both bills reach the floor of their respective chambers.

There may be amendments offered in both chambers to increase or lower individual line item authorizations.

It seems likely that a conference committee will need to work out the differences between the two competing surface transportation authorization bills.

If the two chambers are unable to resolve their differences, that might lead to yet another one year extension of the FAST Act as happened last year. Some congressional observers believe it might happen this year, too.

Spending authorizations can be highly contentious and subject to partisan differences.

That brings up another noteworthy difference between the House and Senate surface transportation authorization bills.

The Senate bill passed out of committee with bi-partisan, although not unanimous support. The House bill was more of a partisan creation.

The Senate bill does contain a number of clauses that can be interpreted as pro-passenger rail.

These include mandates, for example, that Amtrak maintain a ticket agent at stations averaging 40 or more passengers a day.

Amtrak is also being directed by the Senate bill to provide a host of additional information about a variety of issues including any plans to change the operations of long-distance or other routes.

There is also language in the bill describing the importance of Amtrak service to rural America.

These mandates appear to reflect a likelihood of Congressional support for continuing funding of Amtrak service as it exists today with, perhaps, some modest service increases and enhancements.

The Senate committee, though, did not support the type of far-reaching and expansive additions to the Amtrak network envisioned by the carrier’s Amtrak Connect US plan.

What it all means is that despite the happy talk emanating from rail passenger advocacy groups about how intercity passenger rail service is on the verge of a transformational moment that is not a sure thing.

A lot of things are going to have fall into place and what happened last week in the Senate does not necessarily bode well for that process playing out the way some want to see it develop.

Senate Committee OKs Transportation Bill

June 27, 2021

A five-year $78 billion surface transportation authorization bill has cleared the Senate Commerce Committee.

The Surface Transportation Investment Act authorizes $25 billion for Amtrak and $28 billion for transportation construction grants.

It also includes $2 billion a year for a new program for major projects of national significance; $1.5 billion a year for Rebuilding America Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity); $1.2 billion for freight-focused Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants; and $7.5 billion for rail-related safety projects and increases funding for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grants.

The bill was approved by the committee on a 25-3 vote.

The committee turned aside a proposal by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) that the legislation propose a goal that Amtrak become financially self-sustaining.

In response, Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) said that although improved Amtrak service could lead to “a lot of economic growth and opportunity . . . without subsidies, it’s done.”

Senate Committee Introduces Surface Transportation Authorization Bill

June 16, 2021

Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last week released details about a five-year surface transportation bill authorizing $78 billion for rail, freight, safety and research programs.

The legislation, which has bi-partisan support, is designed to accompany the $303.5 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021.

The Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 was introduced on the same day that a House Committee was marking up its own surface transportation authorization bill, the $547 billion INVEST in America Act.

Both House and Senate proposals are designed to replace the current Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which expires on Sept. 30.

The FAST Act originally expired in 2020 but was extended by Congress for a year.

If Congress fails to approve a new surface transportation authorization bill by Sept. 30, it will face a situation of having to approve another extension or passing one or more continuing resolution extending the current law.

Some congressional observers believe that based on how other surface transportation bills have fared it will be a year or longer before a new bill is enacted.

Among the provisions of the Senate’s most recently introduced bill is authorization of $36 billion for rail programs.

Passenger rail would receive $25 billion of that for intercity passenger rail service.

The committee said in a statement this level of funding “protects Amtrak’s critically important long-distance routes,” while also addressing the Northeast Corridor project capital improvements backlog and encouraging expansion of passenger rail corridors with state support.

Rail funding also includes more than $7.5 billion for rail safety and improvement projects, such as a new $500 million per year grant program to eliminate grade crossings as well as increased funding for the Consolidated Rail and Infrastructure Safety Improvement grant program.

The bill authorizes $28 billion for multi-modal freight investments, including an average of $1.2 billion a year for the Nationally Significant Multimodal Freight grant program.

Other authorizations include $1.5 billion for U.S. DOT’s BUILD/RAISE grant program and $2 billion for the creation of a new program to fund projects of “national significance.”

Safety programs would be authorized $13 billion, including $6 billion for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s highway safety programs; $4.6 billion for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s commercial vehicle programs; and $500 million to improve first responder planning and training for hazardous material incidents.

DOT would be authorized $1 billion for new and existing research and development programs.

The legislation also reauthorizes and makes reforms to USDOT agencies such as the Office of the Secretary; Federal Railroad Administration ; FMCSA; NHTSA; and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Hazardous Materials Programs.

Buttigieg Pledges to be 2nd Biggest Rail Enthusiast

January 24, 2021

Secretary of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg said during his confirmation hearing this week before a Senate committee that he will be the second biggest passenger rail enthusiast in the Biden administration.

Pete Buttigieg

The biggest passenger rail enthusiast would be President Joseph Biden, who is well known for having commuted to Washington on Amtrak during his time in the Senate.

“As a mayor from the industrial Midwest, I will bring a bottom-up perspective on transportation programs and funding,” Buttigieg said.

“If confirmed, I look forward to working with our partners at the state, local, territorial, and tribal levels to find solutions to our infrastructure issues while we also prepare for the future of transportation at a time of great change.”

During the hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, some committee members pressed Buttigieg to favor their pet rail projects.

Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker invited Buttigieg to visit his state to talk about restoration of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.

Amtrak has been absent from that region of the country since 2005 when the Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited was suspended following Hurricane Katrina.

Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal pressed Buttigieg to commit to providing federal funding to complete the Gateway Program to replace and rebuild tunnels under the Hudson River that link New York City and New Jersey.

The 111-year-old tunnels were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Buttigieg lacks a transportation industry background but as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he offered support for a project about to get underway to add double track to the South Shore Commuter line that links that South Bend and Chicago.

As mayor he also supported proposals to extend the South Shore to downtown South Bend and to establish quiet zones on Norfolk Southern and Canadian National routes in the city.

Buttigieg, who is expected to win Senate confirmation, spoke of the economic power of transportation investment, and signaled his intent to make the DOT less auto-centric.

“There are so many ways that people get around, and I think often we’ve had an auto-centric view that has forgotten, historically, about all of the other different modes,” he said.

“We want to make sure anytime we’re doing a street design that it enables cars, and bicycles, and pedestrians and any other modes—and businesses—to co-exist in a positive way, and we should be putting funding behind that.”

One of Buttigieg’s signature transportation efforts as mayor was to push for South Bend to adopt a “Smart Streets” initiative to bolster development of downtown.

This involved redesigning streets to add bike lanes and reduce vehicle lanes as well as working with the private sector to create economic development partnerships.

Buttigieg spoke about his love of Amtrak travel, including trips aboard the Lake Shore Limited during his college years.

 “I enjoy long train trips as well as short ones, and I think Americans ought to be able to enjoy the highest standard of passenger rail service,” he said.

Amtrak Predicts 72% Ridership Drop in FY2021

October 22, 2020

Amtrak now expects ridership in federal fiscal year 2021 to be 72 percent below what it was in FY 2019.

Speaking before the Senate Commerce Committee, Amtrak CEO William Flynn said the passenger carrier expects to carry 9 million passengers in the current fiscal year. In FY 2019 Amtrak handled 32.5 million passengers.

In earlier statements, Flynn had projected the carrier would handle just half of its normal ridership in FY 2021.

Even the more pessimistic ridership numbers that Flynn presented this week are based on the assumption that by mid 2021 there will be an effective and widely distributed vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

He acknowledged that this scenario “is not a guaranteed outcome.”

Amtrak and other public carriers, including airlines, have attributed massive ridership plunges to the COVID-19 pandemic depressing the market for travel, particularly business travel.

Flynn testified that in April daily ridership nosedived to 4,000 daily riders. This week it had rebounded to 17,000 per day, but before the pandemic it had been 80,000 per day.

Amtrak has said that preliminary figures show that in FY 2020 ridership has fallen by 97 percent and revenue by 53 percent.

Flynn said Amtrak revenue under the 9 million passengers for FY 2021 scenario would be $598 million. In FY 2019 Amtrak earned $2.4 billion.

He implored the committee to support granting Amtrak $2.8 billion in emergency aid by December.

Otherwise, Flynn said, Amtrak will have to delay capital projects and cut 2,400 more jobs.

Amtrak also has asked Congress to grant it $4.9 billion in FY 2021. The carrier had asked back in February for $2 billion for the 2021 budget year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Earlier this month Amtrak scaled back operation of all long-distance trains except the Auto Train to three times a week and furloughed 2,000 workers or about 10 percent of its workforce.

Flynn sought to frame those service reductions and staff furloughs as necessary to avoid deficit spending of up to $250 million a month in cash.

“At this rate of cash depletion, Amtrak would be forced to take even more drastic measures with long-lasting impacts on our company, our employees, and our network,” Flynn said.

Noting that emergency aid and additional appropriations from Congress has not been forthcoming, Flynn told the committee, “We must be prudent and address the situation at hand.”

Congress granted Amtrak $1 billion in emergency aid in March as part of the CARES Act, but Flynn said most of that money has since been spent and without additional assistance Amtrak faces the prospect of being forced into bankruptcy.

Some committee members expressed sharp criticism about Amtrak’s reducing the service levels of its long-distance trains.

 “Part of the skepticism that occurs at least with me, and maybe my colleagues, is that previous CEOs of Amtrak were less committed to long-distance passenger service,” said Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas).

 “So when the three-day [operation] arrives it raises concerns that this is another circumstance in which we’re just being played, that this is the continued effort to eliminate or significantly diminish the service.”

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi., noted that Amtrak’s “temporary suspension” of The Sunset Limited along the Gulf Coast has lasted 15 years.

Nos. 1 and 2 were suspended between New Orleans and Orlando in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Senator Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said, “We don’t want to see what the chairman’s talking about — some incident that basically sets a course where service is curtailed and then it takes you 15 years to get it re-established.”

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) expressed concern that in the absence of daily train service the public would choose other travel modes and may not return to Amtrak when full service is restored.

Flynn insisted, as he did in a House committee hearing in September, that Amtrak had no intention of making the service reductions permanent.

He said Amtrak would evaluate ridership and finances in February and might begin to restore daily service in May “when financially possible.”

Amtrak is not the only transportation-related agency seeking emergency funding from Congress.

Public transit agencies have asked for $36 billion, privately-owned school bus and motorcoach companies want $15 billion, airports are seeking $10 billion, and airlines have requested $25 billion.

Amtrak Board Nominees Sent to Senate Floor

September 17, 2020

Three nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors have advanced to the Senate floor, but a Kansas senator has placed a hold on two of them

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the nominations of Chris Koos, Sarah Feinberg and Todd Rokita, but Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) is demanding that Rokita and Feinberg provide credible evidence that they support Amtrak’s long-distance services.

Moran’s staff indicated that Koos, the mayor of Normal, Illinois, has provided such evidence, but Feinberg’s statement needs more detail.

Rokita, a former Indiana congressman, did not respond to the senator’s request to provide a written statement.

The Senate committee voted unanimously to advance the nominations of Feinberg and Koos, both Democrats, but advanced Rokitas nomination on a party line 14-12 vote.

All 12 dissenting votes came from Democrats. Rokita is a Republican.

Feinberg is a former head of the Federal Railroad Administration and is currently interim president of the New York City Transit Authority.

Amtrak Board Nominees Tell Senate Committee They Support Keeping National Network

August 21, 2020

Amtrak board of directors nominee Chris Koos told a Senate hearing that although he is “very committed” to Amtrak’s national network he also views the carrier’s proposed reduction of frequency of service on long-distance routes as a temporary measure.

Testifying to the Senate Commerce Committee on Aug. 6, Koos, the mayor of Normal, Illinois, said that without long-distance trains Amtrak doesn’t have a national network.

“I understand the need to be prudent about the frequency of those routes in a COVID world. I am strongly committed to returning to daily service on the long-distance routes,” he said.

Amtrak plans to operate all of its long-distance trains except the Auto Train on tri-weekly or quad-weekly schedules.

The New York-Miami Silver Meteor and Silver Star began operating on a less-than-daily basis in early July and the remainder of the trains will move to tri-weekly in October.

Also testifying and supportive of the reduction in long-distance service was board nominee Sarah Feinberg,

“I believe Amtrak is taking the right steps — cleaning, masks, matching service levels to current ridership demand,” said Feinberg, who is currently the interim president of New York City’s public transit system and former head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Some Senators during the hearing expressed reservations about Amtrak’s plans.

“I’m very concerned that these cuts may significantly harm communities and threaten the long-term viability of the national railroad,” said Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and the ranking minority member of the committee.

Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) was particularly outspoken in his view that Amtrak is biased against long distance trains.

“I am here to make sure that the nominees understand what they’ve just answered in Senator Cantwell’s question about their commitment to long-distance service,” he said.

“My view is that Amtrak is designed to provide long-distance service across the country.

“The metrics of whether or not it should exist is not whether or not it is profitable. We have a nationwide system designed to make certain that that service is available to all Americans with geographic dispersity across our country.”

Moran was among a group of senators who opposed an earlier Amtrak plan to break the Chicago-Los Angles Southwest Chief into two trains with passengers traveling by bus between western Kansas and Albuquerque.

Amtrak backed away from that plan in the face of congressional opposition.

Moran saw some parallels between the fight over keeping the route of the Chief intact and Amtrak’s plans to reduce the frequency of operation of the long-distance trains.

“But, now with COVID, there is an opportunity and perhaps an excuse for the diminution of service which I understand. What I am concerned about is the return of the service,” he said.

“I want to make certain that responding to the challenges financial and otherwise of COVID pandemic is not used an excuse to now terminate or significantly reduce, where it no longer is viable, long-distance service on the Southwest Chief and other long-distance routes.”

Moran expressed skepticism about Amtrak’s stated criteria for determining when a long-distance train would return to daily operation.

Among other things, ridership in the first quarter of federal fiscal year 2021 must be within 90 percent of Amtrak’s projected numbers.

“That requires me to have a lot of faith in the projections of Amtrak, so that something less than what you project doesn’t automatically become an explanation for why we no longer can support long-distance passenger service,” Moran said.

The Kansas senator asked Koos and Feinberg to respond in writing their commitment to long-distance service and suggested he might delay their confirmations without that.

Moran had earlier delayed the confirmations of other Amtrak board nominees.

He said to Feinberg and Koos that he hopes the Amtrak board will not look for the excuse that COVID-19 might present for the elimination or significant further reduction of that service.

“In other words, we struggle with maintaining our service for the needs on a daily basis,” Moran said. “Now, with reduced service, I think ridership is going to be less viable not more viable, and so the criteria that Amtrak is creating is making it more difficult in my mind to see that Amtrak is on a path to restoration of service.”

Feinberg said at the hearing she understood the importance of the trains because she is from West Virginia where they are important.

Koos talked about how important the Texas Eagle is to his community and smaller communities across the nation.

“”The first quarter of Fiscal Year 21 seems to me like a tenuous benchmark, because I don’t know where we’re going to be the first quarter of ’21 with COVID-19,” he said.

“ I think we have to recognize the mood of the country and people’s willingness to public transportation again in a post-COVID world and that is the metric that I would use to judge the viability of the long-distance routes.”

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.

Amtrak Board Nominee Says Right Things in Hearing

July 26, 2019

A former Indiana Congressman who has been nominated by the Trump administration to serve on Amtrak’s board of directors has his day before a Senate committee this week and as expected he said all of the right things.

Todd Rokita spoke of riding Amtrak trains many times and said he favored a robust passenger train system.

He also was grilled about the times that he voted while a member of Congress in favor of amendments to cut Amtrak funding.

Rokita sought to explain those votes away by saying, “I believe in fiscal responsibility and my vote sent a message.”

The remarks came during a hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

In response to a question from Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) about whether he would be a fierce backer of Amtrak, Rokita replied that funding of the rail service was up to Congress and his job would be to make sure it was spent wisely. He said his priority would be to improve on-time performance and track safety.

“We don’t need to beat the airlines but to improve “frequency and consistency,” he said.

The committee did not vote on Rokita’s nomination, which is opposed by the Rail Passengers Association.

Nominated in May, Rokita was introduced to the committee Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana), who also serves on the commerce committee and served with Rokita in the House.

Young described Rokita as having “a personal passion for transportation.”

Rokita said he has ridden several times on Amtrak’s Cardinal and Hoosier State.

“I’ve been an Amtrak passenger my whole life, riding the Cardinal from Wabash College (in Crawfordsville) home to Munster,” he said. “And I’ve have ridden the Northeast Corridor routes often while in Congress.”

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker ( R-Mississippi), asked Rokita if he favored eliminating any Amtrak routes.

In response Rokita said keeping a national system was a priority and he had “no preconceived notions to eliminate anything.”

Rokita served in the House from 2011-2019 and is now general counsel for Apex Benefits, a consulting firm in Indianapolis.

Senate Committee To Consider Amtrak Board Pick

July 21, 2019

A July 24 hearing has been set by the Senate Committee on Commerce to consider a nominee for a position on the Amtrak board of directors.

The Trump administration has nominated former Indiana Congress Todd Rokita to the board, a move that drew opposition from some rail passenger advocates due to his support of amendments would have ended funding for some Amtrak service had those amendments been adopted.

Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews said his group opposes the Rokita nomination although he said the former congressman is likely to say the right things during his hearing.

The nomination of Rokita was announced last May.