SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – UTU Missouri State Legislative Director Ken Menges is halfway toward a goal of creating a public rail commission to study means of expanding and financing improved multi-modal passenger transportation in his state and throughout the Midwest, with an emphasis on creating a track network capable of supporting 150-mph rail passenger service.
In a show of bi-partisan support, the Missouri House of Representatives has voted 134-2 to create a 15-member commission to recommend best practices to “design, build, operate, maintain and finance an improved rail system for Missouri and the Midwest, including “specific recommendations for legislation, regulations, funding sources and way to integrate the improved rail system into existing and planned Amtrak expansions, airports and public transportation systems.”
The House bill is specific that the improved rail system be designed for 150-mph rail passenger service.
The focus now shifts to the state senate.
Menges said he has been working with representatives of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, as well as Missouri railroads and the state DOT, to gather bi-partisan legislative support.
In 2008, California voters authorized a $9.95 billion bond measure as a down-payment for a high-speed rail project linking the Sacramento (in northern California), the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles.
The projected $98 billion route subsequently won $3.3 billion in federal grants.
But with California in the midst of a severe budget shortfall, voter opinion has turned negative. A recent public opinion poll found that 64 percent of registered California voters (73 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of Democrats) would reject the project if given a second chance to vote on it — most citing the escalating costs and long-term completion date.
But don’t assume the California project – or, for that matter, other high-speed rail projects — are down for the count.
While the dramatic increase in cost has imposed sticker-shock on Californians, and while Congress has cut-off further federal funding for this and other high-speed rail projects, California Gov. Jerry Brown remains an ardent cheerleader, observing:
“California’s high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California’s population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion.”
The former chairman of the House Transportation & Infastructure Committee, Jim Oberstar, now a private citizen, but still quite active politically, told The Washington Post:
“The financial uncertainties facing California’s high-speed rail project should not be read as an indictment of such rail development in America.
“High-speed, inter-city passenger rail can be successful, even profitable — as proven in France. The French national passenger rail system, wrote a check for $299 million to the national government just before Christmas, and has returned $780 million to the government over the last five years.
“Massive congestion is choking our major metropolitan areas, costing Americans $110 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel. We must invest in a passenger rail alternative. The longer we wait, the less livable our cities will become and the more expensive the alternatives will be. The French have proven that the concept can succeed. We should follow their lead and not give up on inter-city passenger rail.
Moreover, the The New York Times observed:
“[While] for many Californians, struggling through a bleak era that has led some people to wonder if the state’s golden days are behind it, this project goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation.”
The UTU’s National Legislative Office is among those educating members of Congress to the long-term benefits of high-speed rail investment. For example, the UTU is reminding lawmakers that that construction of America’s Interstate Highway system began slowly and had to overcome substantial initial opposition.
While legislation to begin construction of Interstate Highways was passed by Congress in 1956, it was the culmination of two-decades of effort – with President Roosevelt the catalyst, much as President Obama is seeking to be the catalyst for nationwide high-speed rail.
As one historian recounted, “The plan had to be sold and sold again,” culminating with President Eisenhower providing the final push – convincing Congress that a $50 billion investment ($421 billion in 2011 dollars) was absolutely essential to ensure American mobility in the future.
“Patience and persistence achieved the goal of building Interstate Highways,” says National Legislative Director James Stem. “Patience and persistence will achieve the 21st century goal of President Obama for a nationwide 17,000-mile network of high-speed and higher-speed trains to provide 80 percent of the American population access to train travel by 2036.
WASHINGTON – Just when federal funding for high-speed rail appeared dead as a rusted rail spike, Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois exercised his clout and reopened the door – if only slightly.
On Sept. 20, the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee voted to zero-out all federal funds for high-speed rail. Coming on the heels of a similar House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee vote, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) – one of the most ardent congressional supporters of high-speed rail – declared that elimination of high-speed rail funding is “a casualty of the cuts mandated in the debt-limit deal.”
But when the entire Senate Appropriations Committee met Sept. 21, Durbin was successful in having the entire committee overrule the transportation subcommittee and, instead, approve $100 million for high-speed funding for fiscal year 2012.
True, the $100 million, while seeming a large sum, is relatively small given the hundreds of billions of dollars required to build a series of high-speed rail lines in America. Consider that President Obama, earlier in the year, had urged $8 billion for high-speed rail in FY 2012, on top of $10.1 billion previously approved by Congress – with $7 billion of that $10.1 billion already allocated to numerous high-speed rail proposals nationwide.
With the door for high-speed rail funding reopened, the battle now turns to the House and Senate floors, where more money might be appropriated when the final votes are cast for FY 2012 high-speed rail funding.
Amtrak funding also faces a tough battle in the House and Senate.
In the Senate, appropriators are recommending $544 million in Amtrak operating subsidies for FY 2012 ($18 million less than FY 2011 funding) plus $937 million toward capital spending and debt service (an increase of $15 million from the FY 2011 appropriation).
But In the House, appropriators are recommending considerably less for Amtrak in FY 2012 — $227 million for operating subsidies and $899 for capital and debt service.
Also awaiting further House action is a House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee recommendation to eliminate all federal funding for state-supported Amtrak service in FY 2012. No action on that anti-Amtrak initiative has surfaced in the Senate.
It is unlikely that the House and Senate will reach agreement on FY 2012 Amtrak funding prior to the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1. More likely is a continuing resolution that will extend FY 2011 funding levels into FY 2012 while lawmakers continue debating FY 2012 funding levels.
WASHINGTON — New jobs building and operating high-speed rail “are American jobs that can’t be shipped overseas and would be a Godsend in this economic downturn,” UTU Alternate National Legislative Director John Risch told a congressionally sponsored forum here Aug. 3.
“Railroad operating jobs are not just good paying jobs; they are great careers,” Risch told his audience, which included a bi-partisan group of lawmakers and their staff interested in advancing high-speed passenger railroading, as well as officials of the American High Speed Rail Alliance.
“Amtrak and its workforce should be the backbone for high-speed rail in America,” Risch said. “Amtrak, by law, is America’s national intercity rail passenger network and the nation’s only provider of high-speed rail with its Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor.”
Risch told the forum the UTU supports Amtrak’s Next Generation Plan for development of high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, which would include speeds as fast as 220-mph and significantly reduced travel times.
“Amtrak’s plan would support 44,000 jobs annually over the 25-year construction period and some 120,000 permanent jobs,” Risch said.
“If we were instead to build more highways, we would have to build eight new lanes of Interstate between Washington, D.C., and Boston to accommodate the same number of travelers Amtrak will carry on the Northeast Corridor upon completion of the Next Generation Plan,” Risch said.
“Amtrak,” said Risch, “has extensive experience operating passenger trains in America, has long-standing relationships with the freight railroads and has a proven track-record partnering with state and local governments to provide passenger rail service,” Risch said.
“Most importantly, Amtrak employs the experienced conductors, engineers, on-board service workers, machinists, signalmen, train dispatchers, and others who know how to run a railroad,” Risch said. “These are the best trained passenger-rail workers in the nation, and Amtrak is the best choice to implement any high-speed rail program.”
WASHINGTON – The Republican leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee will introduce legislation July 8 to slash Amtrak’s federal subsidy by 25 percent, prevent federal funds from being used to create additional rail passenger services unless they are high-speed projects, and cut federal transit funding by 30 percent.
Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), and Rail Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) have previously made known their dislike for Amtrak and intention to destroy the national intercity rail passenger network through funding cuts and privatization of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
The senior Democrat on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, put the Mica/Shuster legislation in perspective: “The bill, as we have seen so far, cannot pass the [Democratic-controlled Senate].”
Opposition to the bill also is being voiced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has joined with the AFL-CIO to lobby against it. The UTU’s National Legislative Office already is working with members in the House and Senate against Amtrak and transit funding cuts.
Amtrak funding has previously and regularly been in the crosshairs of its detractors, and another tough fight is brewing. On Amtrak’s — and transit’s — side are tens of millions of Americans who continue to make clear to their elected congressional lawmakers that they want more, not less, rail passenger and transit service.
The proposed cuts for Amtrak and transit are contained in a six-year bill entitled, “The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU.” Senate Democratic leaders are pushing for a two-year bill that would be more generous toward Amtrak and transit – although at lower spending levels than sought by the Obama administration.
The House bill would also extend the deadline beyond 2015 for implementation of positive train control (PTC).
The bill also would remove a federal requirement that states use Highway Trust Fund revenue for non-highway transportation purposes, such as mass transit; but would allow states to make such decisions unilaterally.
There are, however, provisions in the House bill that have been sought by the UTU – and those provisions are expected to survive. They include:
Increasing a low-interest loan program for state transportation projects.
Encouraging states to create and capitalize state infrastructure banks to provide loans for transportation projects.
Improving transit options for the elderly and disabled.
Insulating motor carrier safety programs from any spending cuts.
Requiring federal regulators to keep unsafe buses off the road.
Improving access to the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program; and making high-speed rail projects eligible for RRIF loans.
Strengthening the rail transit safety oversight program.
Establishing annual inspection programs for buses.
Requiring regulations to establish minimum training requirements for commercial drivers.
China’s effort to lead the world in high-speed rail development appears to be moving forward at the expense of safety, reports The Washington Post.
The Chinese government, reports the newspaper, has ordered all high-speed trains to reduce their top speed from some 220 mph to 186 mph, calling safety concerns of those trains “severe.”
Reportedly, inferior materials have been used, creating safety concerns. Separately, the Congressional Budget Office said China has imposed lower crashworthiness standards for its passenger trains than are imposed in the United States.
Last year, it was reported by the Progressive Policy Institute that China had embarked on a goal of a north-south and east-west nationwide grid of 220-mph long distance trains — all to be in operation by 2020.
Says The Washington Post, “With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization now looks more like an example of many of the interlinking problems plaguing the country: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.”
In the United States, the Obama administration envisions a high-speed rail passenger network over dedicated electrified lines with trains operating at speeds of 125-220-mph linking major population centers 200-600 miles apart.
But federal budget cutting has imperiled that plan.
Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has his own vision — a 30-year, $117 billion Northeast Corridor improvement project that would link Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston with 220-mph passenger trains cutting trip times to 84 minutes between New York and Boston and 96 minutes between New York and Washington.
Boardman told Railway Age magazine that Amtrak envisions operating other high-speed rail corridors as they move toward development.
In early April testimony before the House Rail Subcommittee, Amtrak’s vice president for government affairs, Joe McHugh, urged Congress to provide dedicate, multi-year funding for intercity and high-speed rail; establish a national investment strategy; create a clear and leading role for Amtrak; ensure coordinated corridor planning and project execution; and address liability and insurance issues.
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is pushing for a six-year, $53 billion investment in high-speed, higher-speed and expanded passenger rail service, but a fight is brewing with congressional Republicans.
An initial $8 billion in funding for these rail projects is expected to be included in the president’s fiscal year 2012 budget request that will be transmitted to Congress next week.
Vice President Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lifted the curtain on the proposal Feb. 8 at a Philadelphia press conference, announcing the Obama administration wants the $53 billion focused on three areas of development:
Core express that will develop electrified high-speed trains operating between 125 and 250 mph on dedicated track reserved for these trains.
Regional trains that will operate between 90 and 125 mph.
Emerging rail where trains will operate up to 90 mph — intended to expand rail service to regions of the nation not currently served.
No specifics were provided.
Said Biden: “As a longtime Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced.”
Republican leaders were quick to respond — and not positively. Congressional approval of the Obama administration rail plan must begin with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), and the chairman of the Rail Subcommittee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), called the administration’s rail plan equivalent to “giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.” Madoff is serving a 150-year jail term, having been convicted of what was called the largest investor fraud in U.S. history.
Mica and Shuster criticized the Obama administration’s rail policies, alleging “the Federal Railroad Administration is neither a capable grant agency, nor should it be involved in the selection of projects.”
They said that what the Obama administration so far has “touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere.”
Mica said he would prefer federal money to be spent on the federally owned Northeast Corridor, operated by Amtrak, which he called “the most congested corridor in the nation.” The Northeast Corridor connects Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Federal spending on passenger-rail projects, some of which will benefit freight railroads, is part of a broad jobs-creation initiative of the Obama administration. In his State of the Union message in January, Obama spoke of providing high-speed rail access to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years.
During 2010, the administration, through the Federal Railroad Administration, awarded $10.5 billion in federal grants to 15 state for rail projects. Two of the states — Ohio and Wisconsin, both with Republican governors — rejected the federal money, saying their states couldn’t afford to pay for the bulk of the projects’ costs and the expected future operating subsidies.
Included in the $10.5 billion grants in 2010 was $2.3 billion toward a $40 billion, 800-mile California high-speed rail project intended to link Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego; and $1.25 billion toward a $2.3 billion, 84-mile Florida high-speed rail project intended to link Tampa with Orlando (and, eventually, Miami). Mica, from Florida, has not opposed that Florida project outright, but said he wants to see the private sector commit at least $300 million to the project before it moves forward.
In his state-of-the-union speech Jan. 26, President Obama mentioned the word “railroad” eight times — the most mentions of “railroad” in more than 30 years of state-of-the-union messages delivered by five different presidents.
Yes, there are those who keep count.
In fact, the Washington, D.C., public policy advocacy firm of Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell used their research skills to trace back to the turn of the 20th century — more than 110 years ago — mention of the word “railroad” in state-of-the-union speeches.
As the table below indicates, railroads were a pretty common topic of statecraft prior to World War II, not the least of reasons being that they were the primary means of moving people and freight in America. That, of course, was before commercial air travel — especially jet aircraft — and Interstate highways. Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt said “railroad” a whopping 153 times in state-of-the-union speeches during his presidency (1901-1909).
The dearth of the word “railroad” in state-of-the-union speeches in the decades between Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) and Jerry Ford (1974-1977) ended with Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Carter mentioned “railroad” 26 times in state-of-the-union speeches — and for good reason. During Carter’s presidency, railroad deregulation was among the top domestic priorities of his administration. It was Carter who signed into law the Staggers Rail Act, largely deregulating railroads, in 1980.
Comes now iron-horse champion Obama, who, in word and deed, is looking to resurrect rail passenger service — more precisely, world-class 21st century high-speed rail service — as a principal alternative to commercial airlines and automobiles.
Below is a table, courtesy of Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell, breaking down the mention of the word “railroad” in state-of-the-union speeches since 1901.
Total “Rail” Used
George W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
To read more about what President Obama said about railroads in his state-of-the-union speech, click on the following link:
In a state-of-the-union speech uncharacteristically short on laundry list projects and policies, President Obama Tuesday night conspicuously singled out high-speed rail as “the most reliable way to move people,” saying that “within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.
“For some [high-speed rail] trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down,”said the president. “As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.”
The White House press office said the president will release more details on his desires for high-speed rail, transit and Amtrak improvements when he delivers his fiscal-year 2012 budget request to Congress in early February.
“Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do,” said the president in his state-of-the-union speech. “China is building faster trains … We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad.”
Many Republicans, however, have signaled they will oppose Obama’s high-speed rail spending proposals and also seek to reduce federal subsidies for Amtrak during congressional budget deliberations.
However, the chairman of the House Rail Subcommittee, Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), indicated he is not opposed to more spending on high-speed rail and Amtrak, but has reservations. Shuster said:
“The Obama administration’s high-speed rail grants, rather than focusing on a small number of projects with the most potential for success, have been spread among numerous projects. Most of these have been grants to Amtrak, and nearly all are slower-speed rail projects.
“In addition, the administration has virtually ignored the one region of the United States where high-speed rail makes the most sense and would have the most national benefit — the Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston. Amtrak’s Acela currently serves this route, but at an average speed of only 83 mph.”
And Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee’s parent, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, has voiced support for more high-speed rail funding in the Northeast Corridor and for a limited number of high-speed rail projects — but with a caveat: private sector investment in addition to federal funding.
(The following article, written by Ken Orski, editor and publisher of Innovation Briefs, is reproduced with permission of Mr. Orski.)
WASHINGTON — Congressional action on transportation this year, including the shape of the next surface transportation bill, will be inevitably influenced by the changed political geography of the 112th Congress.
Not only will the level of funding for transportation be dictated by new, fiscally conservative House appropriators, but the program priorities will be influenced by a new House majority that largely hails from small-town and suburban America.
None of the new GOP majority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee represents big city transit-oriented districts. A majority come from the heartland. The closest to a major urbanized areas that any of the Republican members come from, are Oklahoma City and Charleston, S.C.
Thus, the committee will likely focus on traditional concerns of keeping roads and bridges in a state of good repair — and try to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund by bringing expenditures in line with expected gas tax receipts. That means a budget of approximately $40 billion to $41 billion annually.
Within these budget limits, transit will maintain its customary standing — although it may receive somewhat less emphasis, given the changed composition of the T&I Committee.
Also likely to be curtailed will be support for high-speed rail, given its cool reception in Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Florida and other Republican-dominated state legislatures.
Discretionary “executive earmarks,” such as the TIGER grants, will most likely be severely cut back if not entirely eliminated. They have not been popular with Republican lawmakers.
Chairman Mica’s resolve to make passage of a multi-year authorization a top priority increases the likelihood that a transportation bill will be brought to the House floor and approved during the first session of the 112th Congress. The Senate is likely go along.
While the next authorization will almost surely be more modest in size and less “transformational” than many in the transportation community would like to see, it will at least restore the federal surface transportation program to a stable and predictable multi-year footing.