Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Senate’

Infrastructure Bill Would Make Amtrak Policy Changes

August 4, 2021

The text of the proposed nearly $1 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill was revealed this week in the U.S. Senate.

As reported earlier by various sources, the bill would provide $66 billion to Amtrak with most of that money being used to address maintenance backlogs and upgrade the Northeast Corridor.

However, the text also showed the legislation would make changes to Amtrak’s legal mission.

Those include making the goal of Amtrak to “meet the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States” rather than achieving “a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money.”

There is also language that places Amtrak service to rural areas as well as urban areas.

The funding for Amtrak in the bill would allocate $1.5 billion per year for the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grants program with a 50 percent match required.

Also included in the bill is $15 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation to analyze the restoration of long-distance trains that have been terminated by Amtrak; money to fund the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program ($1 billion per year), and the Restoration and Enhancement Program ($50 million per year); and $500 million per year for rail grade crossing separation projects.

The Amtrak funding is part of an overall $102 billion package for commuter rail and other high-performance rail services.

Public transit would receive $107 billion for public transit. Some of that funding can be used for multimodal investments that include transit and passenger rail.

The legislation also contains the Senate’s version of a new surface transportation reauthorization  bill that authorizes funding for railroads, water infrastructure, public transit, highway, bridges and roads.

Transformational? Probably Not

August 4, 2021

Although the bipartisan infrastructure bill now being debated by the Senate contains an infusion of new funding for rail passenger service, it is not necessarily the “transformational” development that rail passenger advocates have long sought.

Writing last week on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Jim Mathews, the president of the group formerly known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said the bill provides meaningful and sustained increases in passenger rail funding, yet doesn’t have nearly enough funding to provide for a wide-ranging expansion of Amtrak routes and services.

But 24 hours later, RPA’s Sean Jeans-Gail, RPA’s vice president of policy and government affairs, wrote a post saying that the views expressed in Mathews’ earlier post had been a little too pessimistic and that the infrastructure plan could be transformational.

When RPA and other rail passenger advocates use the word “transformational” they are talking about a vision in which the nation’s intercity rail passenger network is much greater than it is now. By that they mean doubled, tripled and maybe quadrupled.

It is difficult to say because advocates tend to speak in general terms about Amtrak expansion.

Amtrak has laid out its own transformational vision in its Amtrak Connect US plan that calls for a network of 39 new corridor services by 2035.

Individual rail passenger advocates, though, tend to have their own visions and dreams, some of which would involve several new long-distance routes plus an expansion of the number of trains on existing long-distance routes. Amtrak is not calling for additional long-distance routes.

Whatever your vision for expanding intercity rail passenger service might be, it won’t happen without a massive infusion of public money.

The infrastructure plan now before the Senate would allocate $66 million for passenger rail.

But most of that money would be used on Amtrak’s existing network, leaving just $32 billion for additional passenger rail funding.

 “While this bill would count as the biggest federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation, it is far below what was originally envisioned by the White House,” Mathews wrote.

He was referring to the $74 billion originally proposed by President Joseph Biden for new passenger rail projects in his American Jobs Act proposal.

What RPA and other passenger advocates really want is the $110 billion in the House-approved INVEST Act that would be spent on passenger rail.

The Senate infrastructure bill combines figures from what had been two separate pieces of legislation, one of which is the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021.

That bill, which contained $34.2 billion for passenger rail, was approved earlier by the Senate Commerce Committee.

If you combine what is available for passenger rail in the infrastructure bill with the Transportation Investment Act figures, Jeans-Gail wrote, you get a passenger rail investment of $102 billion over the next five years, which he called a “transformational” figure.

Maybe, but read the fine print. The only funding that is guaranteed by the infrastructure bill is the $66 billion of the original bi-partisan infrastructure plan.

The rest of the funding is subject to approval through the congressional appropriations process.

“There’s no assurance that the additional $36 billion in investment will ever fully materialize,” Jeans-Gail wrote. “This creates uncertainty in how the guaranteed funds would be used, hindering the ability of states and Amtrak to effectively execute multi-year capitalization plans.”

So what will that $66 billion be used for? Primarily to fund capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and the national network, and buy new equipment for the national network.

Some of the funding is devoted toward establishing new services, although Mathews suggested it might only be enough for one or two routes.

The RPA posts have suggested that money could be used to restore discontinued routes, extend existing service and add additional frequencies on existing routes.

In his post, Mathews said there remains hope that the House will approve a more generous rail funding section of the infrastructure plan. Any differences would need to be worked out between the House and Senate.

He conceded that a higher level of rail funding could draw the opposition of those Republicans who have thus far supported the bi-partisan Senate infrastructure bill.

It seems unlikely the Senate will lie down and give in to everything that the House wants. There will be a give and take in reconciling the differing visions of each chamber.

Then again the infrastructure bill hasn’t passed the Senate yet, hasn’t been considered by the House and hasn’t been signed by the president. We are talking about proposals at this point not finished products.

The numbers may change in time, but the overall thrust of what the infrastructure bill will and won’t do is unlikely to change all that much.

That may result in something transformational or it might simply lead to incremental additions to the nation’s intercity rail passenger network with new equipment and improved infrastructure being used by the existing services.

If that turns out to be the case it would be a positive for America’s intercity rail passenger network. It just won’t lead to the fulfillment of most of the desires and dreams of many rail passenger advocates.

DOT No. 2 Nominee Pledges Support for Gateway Project

March 14, 2021

The Biden administration’s nominee for the No. 2 job at the U.S. Department of Transportation said during a Senate confirmation hearing that the Northeast Corridor’s Gateway Tunnel project will be a top priority of the agency.

Deputy Secretary of Transportation nominee Polly Trottenberg made the pledge in response to a question asked by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut).

“It is truly a project of national significance, and as you say, one that really would have just a massive rippling impact if we were to see those over-100-year-old tunnels under the Hudson River for some reason need to be shut down,” Trottenberg said.

She formerly served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.

The $11 billion Gateway project calls for construction of two tunnels linking New York’s Penn Station and New Jersey under the Hudson River.

The two existing tunnels between the points would be rebuilt. Both were damaged in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.

The tunnels are used by trains of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.

The current tunnels were built in 1910 by the former Pennsylvania Railroad.

“Clearly, in my view, without the Gateway Project, our rail and possibly other transportation systems will collapse on the East Coast,” Blumenthal said. “As much of an exaggeration it may seem to say it that way, it is literally true that the tunnel is decaying and increasingly decrepit. It poses a danger to transportation up and down the East Coast. It could literally cripple the transportation grid as we know it now, and yet there have been delays and foot-dragging and finger-pointing.”

Trottenberg agreed that if the tunnels were shut down it would have “a massive ripping impact.”

She said President Joseph Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg “have spoken about this project, and that the Department is going to be hard at work making sure we are picking up the pace and expediting the environmental and other approvals needed for this project, and working closely, I think, with the Congress as well to make sure we have a financing and funding scheme that can get the project done.”

When asked what Congress should be doing to get the Gateway project moving, Trottenberg said the administration will be coming back to Congress for further discussion.

Blumenthal asked Trottenberg to provide a a status report within two to four weeks of her confirmation.

“If confirmed, I certainly will, Senator, and I agree, this is not a project that we can fail to complete,” Trottenberg said. “We are going to have to find a way to do Gateway.”

Senate Increases Aid for Amtrak, Public Transit

March 9, 2021

The U.S. Senate last Saturday increased COVID-19 relief funding for Amtrak and public transit.

The changes were made during consideration of H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was approved by the Senate by a vote of 50-49.

The Senate increased by $1.25 billion the funding for public transit over what the House approved on Feb. 27 and also increased the funding for Amtrak over the House-passed levels.

The bill now goes back to the House for further consideration. The House passed a modified version of the legislation providing $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 emergency funding.

Although some senators proposed amendments that would have cut, transferred or removed the aid to public transit, few of those amendments received a roll call vote and note were approved.

However, the Senate did approve an amendment to make 23 public transit programs eligible for federal Capital Investment Grants.

The House is expected to take up the amended version of the bill today and if approved it would go to President Joseph Biden for his signature.

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $1.7 billion for Amtrak. That is a $200 million increase in funding from what the House approved last month.

Under the Senate version of the legislation $970 million will go toward the Northeast Corridor while the national network will receive $730 million.

The bill also provides $285 million to Amtrak “in lieu of commuter rail and state-supported route payments.”

The bill includes $166 million “to restore service on long-distance routes and to recall and manage furloughed employees.”

The breakdown of other public transit funding in the bill includes $26.09 billion for transit systems in urban areas and $317 million for grants in rural areas.

Also approved was $50 million in grants to benefit services for seniors and those with disabilities, $2.21 billion for operating assistance grants  pertaining to addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and $250 million for Small Start projects that are recipients of a CIG allocation or an applicant in the project development phase.

Buttigieg Confirmed as Secretary of Transportation

February 3, 2021

Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was confirmed on Tuesday as the 19th Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Pete Buttigieg

The nomination was approved by the U.S. Senate on an 86-13 vote.

 “I’m honored and humbled by today’s vote in the Senate—and ready to get to work @USDOT,” Buttigieg, 39, tweeted after the vote.

The Biden administration had earlier named Polly Trottenberg, a former New York City Transportation commissioner, to serve as USDOT’s No. 2 in command. Amit Bose was named as deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration and Nuria Fernandez was named deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration.

Buttigieg is the youngest member of President Joseph Biden’s cabinet

House Passes Amtrak Funding in Budget Bill

August 1, 2020

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved a federal fiscal year budget package that includes $10 billion in funding for Amtrak and $24 billion for public transit.

The legislation includes language that prohibits Amtrak from further furloughs of its work force, directs the intercity rail passenger carrier to maintain daily frequency of service on routes that have it now, and includes a mandate that passengers and employees wear masks on trains, planes, and large transit systems.

The budget bill was approved on a vote of 217 to 197 and now goes to the Senate, which has yet to introduce draft appropriations bills for the next fiscal year which begins on Oct. 1.

The Senate is still trying to approve a COVID-19 pandemic relief package that includes $10 billion in emergency aid for airports but no emergency funding for Amtrak or public transportation.

If the Senate fails to approve an FY2021 budget bill Congress may keep the federal government operating by passing one or more continuing resolutions.

It is unclear at this point what that would mean for Amtrak’s plans to reduce the operation of most long distance passengers trains to tri-weekly on Oct. 1.

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.

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, Transit to Get Aid in Stimulus Package

March 26, 2020

Aid to Amtrak and public transit agencies was part of a $2 trillion stimulus bill approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate.

The intercity rail passenger carrier is to get $1.018 billion of which $526 million is for the national network, $492 million is for the Northeast Corridor, and $239 million is for state-supported routes.

The amount matches what Amtrak President Richard Anderson has said the carrier expects to lose in the current federal fiscal year due to a dramatic drop in ridership and revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public transit agencies are slated to receive $25 billion operating expenses. The bill waives a requirement that transit agencies use their own funds to receive federal assistance.

Another $25 billion was awarded for transit infrastructure grants to be doled out based on fiscal 2020 allocations in four areas: Urbanized Area Formula Grants; Nonurbanized Area Formula Grants; State of Good Repair; and High Density and Growing States.

The stimulus bill now moves to the House, which is expected to vote on it on Friday morning.

USA Today reported that House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland expected his chamber to approve the bill on a voice vote before sending it to President Donald Trump.

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.