Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Amtrak, HSR win big in final stimulus bill; Obama to thank?

The stimulus, which we were mourning only last week, has come out of conference committee mysteriously flush with passenger rail money. The big surprise is that funding for HSR has jumped from John Kerry’s $2 billion in the Senate bill to a whopping $8 billion in the final version. And check out who’s behind it according to the Associated Press:

In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Reid’s office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money.

There are certainly more important routes to focus on right now than the LA-Las Vegas route, but we won’t get into that right now. Chalk it up to typical politician behavior. The big news is that perhaps President Obama will be doing more than just paying lip service to passenger rail.

Amtrak also gets a significant bump from the Senate’s $850 million to $1.3 billion. This, however, comes at the cost of $300 million of passenger rail grants to states. This is bad news for states like Vermont, which is struggling to maintain the subsidies for its popular Amtrak lines amid the economic crunch.

Unfortunately, although rail and transit are both parts to a more sustainable whole, local non-auto transportation got stuck with the lower levels of funding set aside in the Senate bill. Streetsblog describes it as a slap in the face. It’s a shame, but, as the Transport Politic points out, this is the single biggest federal investment in American passenger rail ever. This hopefully signals a more positive attitude about sustainable transportation in general under this administration. This year’s transportation bill will be the critical test of that.

But for now, all of you who contacted your legislators should give yourself a pat on the back. This looks like a rather surprising victory for passenger rail.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail, ,

Feds to get tough on host railroads that delay Amtrak trains

Here’s part of last year’s Amtrak reauthorization that seemed to go largely unnoticed: the Surface Transportation Board now has the power to fine host railroads that delay Amtrak trains. Considering that Amtrak mostly operates on routes owned by other companies outside of the Northeast corridor, this is a big deal. From Bloomberg News:

Freight railroads that cause delays for Amtrak passenger trains using their tracks could be fined under new authority for a U.S. rail oversight board, an official said yesterday at a hearing in Washington.

The Surface Transportation Board, the regulator of some rail rates, is gaining power to ensure Amtrak trains are punctual under a law passed in October. Chairman Charles Nottingham said the law allows it to levy fines to help meet that goal.

Officials want the service, which runs on freight-rail tracks in most parts of the United States, to be on time in 80 percent of trips. Freight-train hindrances and so-called slow orders, where carriers reduce speeds on sections of track, were the main causes of Amtrak delays last year, Amtrak chief operating officer William Crosbie said.

I was hoping to get some more information about how these fines are going to work from the STB’s website, but they don’t have information from yesterday’s conference up yet. If they enforce these regulations, we could see some real improvements in Amtrak’s on-time performance. This would go a long way towards improving its public image. On the other hand, it’s entirely conceivable that they won’t wield this powers at all.

Filed under: Amtrak

Ohio, Florida plans bolstered by HSR stimulus, perhaps unreasonably so

Even though the $2 billion HSR provision passed as part of the stimulus isn’t a sure thing yet, some state authorities are already getting giddy about getting their project funded. Here’s one about the Ohio HSR plan from MSNBC:

CINCINNATI – County officials have thrown their support behind high-speed rail, in hopes that the stimulus package might help pay for local infrastructure.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland has proposal to reestablish a passenger rail connection between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, and rail proponents said some aspects of the plan would qualify for assistance from the federal government.

And Florida, which can’t seem to stick to any one plan for passenger rail in the state:

Local leaders are already working on bringing a commuter rail to Central Florida.

Now the Sunshine State is competing against 10 other states to bring Floridians a high speed rail.
The best part is it won’t cost you a dime.
Thats because the stimulus money would not require a local match.

We were looking for commuter rail. We might end up with high speed rail, said Orange County Commissioner Bill Segal. Its follow the money when the federal government offers money you take it.

Commissioner Segal has been in support of the rail projects.
The commuter rail will be funded by $1.5 million dollars of federal money but now Central Florida is in a good position to grab an even bigger chunk of federal dough through the stimulus package. That money would go to build the high speed rail.
They have to move fast and beat out other states.

“The best part is it won’t cost you a dime”? What? I hate to break it to Florida and Ohio, but $2 billion isn’t a huge amount, and states such as California and the Midwest HSR members have much more concrete plans that are probably going to receive the bulk of the funding. And that’s if this HSR money makes it through conference committee. Still, it’s good that the prospect of stimulus funding is getting people talking. Getting some rapid trains in this country looks like a real possibility in the coming years, but much of it is going to be driven by states. If they don’t get their act together and present solid plans, they’re not going to get any available federal money, and they’ll be left behind.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail

Obama, now as president, speaks up for high-speed rail

The latest hot gossip in the smart transportation blogs today: Obama’s comments yesterday in Ft. Myers, FL about sprawl, smart growth, and, critically, high-speed rail. Here’s the key quote from Transportation for America, which has the transcript:

It’s imagining new transportation systems. I’d like to see high speed rail where it can be constructed. I would like for us to invest in mass transit because potentially that’s energy efficient. And I think people are a lot more open now to thinking regionally…

The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, everybody… recognizes that’s not a smart way to design communities. So we should be using this money to help spur this sort of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation.

That will make a big difference.

It’s nothing we didn’t hear quite often during the election[1, 2, 3], but it means something more when he’s actually in power. Also, his tying together of intercity rail, transit, and smart growth shows that he’s got someone on his team who has the right idea about 21st century transportation. The comments are reassuring after a lack of administration action making rail a priority in the stimulus, but we’ve still yet to see him take any real action in favor of Amtrak or HSR as president. This year should give him plenty of opportunities, however, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on each one.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail, , , , ,

Stimulus update: rail comes out alright in the Senate

Kerry’s $2 billion high-speed rail provision was left intact. And while rail grants to states were down $50 million to $250 million from the House version, money for Amtrak was up $50 million to $850 million. Nothing’s final until the bill goes into conference committee, but it looks like the money for rail is going to be fine. There’s nothing ambitious or “change-ish” about the transportation aspect of the stimulus, but that’s what we’re looking toward this year’s “highway bill” for.

We’ll be sure to keep track of what happens in conference committee. You just never know.

For more info on the stimulus, and to see how transit didn’t do quite as well as intercity rail, check out the Transport Politic’s excellent article.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics

Amtrak next on the stimulus chopping block?

The stimulus package isn’t getting any better in the Senate. According to the New York Times (H/T to the Transport Politic), a compromise amendment with the goal of lowering the cost of the stimulus may cut Amtrak’s allocated $850 million.

Unfortunately, it looks like the targets of the cuts are going to be capital investment projects and not the tax cuts tacked on in the Senate. That’s bad news for schools, transit, and especially intercity rail. Thanks to their powerful lobby, highway money isn’t in any trouble.

Although the mention of Amtrak cuts seems to have been removed from the NYTimes article, Progress Illinois quotes it like this:

Anxious over the ballooning size of the proposed economic stimulus package, now at more than $900 billion, lawmakers in both parties are working on a last-minute plan to strip tens of billions of dollars from the bill. […]

Among the initiatives that could be cut are … $850 million for Amtrak.

Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Contact your senators to remind them that, at some point in the past year, we were promised change. This stimulus bill has involved a lot of sweating for those advocating non-auto transportation. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that things don’t get entirely derailed in the senate.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

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