Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Congress passes Amtrak reauthorization bill, Bush will actually sign it

It’s funny, after months of languishing in legislative hell, the Amtrak reauthorization bill has blasted its way through Capitol Hill in a matter of weeks. It’s not the nicest thought, but it probably has a lot to do with the LA Metrolink crash and the new safety measures tied into the bill.

Perhaps the extra bit of irony here is that President Bush, an avowed enemy of a reasonable budget for Amtrak, is now planning on signing the bill, according to the New York Times. It must be a sign of the times (no pun intended). With high gas prices and declining automobile usage, the Bush administration is perhaps realizing the virtues of passenger rail in its twilight hours. Or maybe they just don’t want to make the public any more disillusioned with them than they already are. The past eight years were basically treated as a swear word in last night’s Vice Presidential debate (on that note, no mention of Amtrak last night.. oh well).

Unfortunately, Amtrak’s not out of the woods yet (is it ever?). The company and the NARP are going to have to go hunting for where these funds are coming from in Congress. But still, this is significant progress for Amtrak. Let’s hope we don’t lose the momentum with important votes about transit and rail coming up this November (CAHSR by itself is enough to get excited about).

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Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , ,

Amtrak funding bills tied into rail safety, pass house

According to the Associated Press, among other sources, a bill full of safety proposals in reaction to the recent LA Metrolink crash has been pass in the House this week. While the included measures, such as positive train control technology, would certainly contribute to safer trains (already safe compared to planes and autos), the bill importantly includes previous Amtrak reauthorization legislation that has been tangled up in committee negotiations. The railroads have concerns that congressional deadlines for safety technology may not be feasible, and I don’t feel qualified to comment on that, but if the political will spurred by this tragic and preventable accident can help Amtrak recieve its much needed funding increases, I’m all for it. From the AP:

The package wraps in legislation reauthorizing Amtrak for five years and providing $13 billion for the carrier. Some of that money would go to matching grants to help states set up or expand rail service.

The Amtrak portion of the legislation also establishes a program for private companies to bid to develop high-speed rail corridors on the East Coast, a private sector component pushed by Republicans who have been wary of what they’ve seen as ever-growing subsidies to Amtrak.

Amtrak’s previous authorization expired in 2002. The carrier’s supporters say a new authorization will allow Amtrak to make long-range plans and take advantage of what they say is a growing appetite for passenger rail.

“As Amtrak ridership continues to hit record levels, our bill gives passenger rail the resources it needs to meet the nation’s increased demands,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. Lautenberg authored the Senate versions of the rail safety and Amtrak bills, both of which had previously passed the House and Senate by wide margins. Lawmakers hadn’t reached agreement on final package until late Tuesday.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, ,

Sen. Tom Coburn singlehandedly blocking Amtrak legislation

We’ve been talking about HR 6003/S 294 for months now. The generous Amtrak reauthorization proposal is long overdue to have its House and Senate versions reconciled so a compromise bill can be placed on the president’s desk. In July we reported that House members of the conference committee were being appointed, but no news of the legislation has followed since then. Apparently, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has taken it upon himself to block the appointment of Senatorial negotiators. From Forbes.com:

Coburn spokesman Don Tatro says Coburn doesn’t believe taxpayers should subsidize what he regards as Amtrak’s inefficiency.

In response, legislators in favor of the bill held a news conference at Washington’s Union Station. They were joined by [mostly northeastern] business groups that emphasized the bill’s importance to the economy. Those at the event included Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Tom Carper, and Rep. Rob Andrews.

What’s frustrating is that this popular plan, which passed both houses of Congress with a supermajority, could be held up by one backwards senator. America needs this legislation, and it seems that we don’t even need an uncooperative president to see this bill de facto vetoed.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , , ,

Amtrak reauthorization bill going into conference committee

Judging by news of congressional appointments, the two different “Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act” versions passed in the Senate and House seem to be in the process of getting reconciled before a conference committee. This is the next step before the legislation goes to President Bush’s desk. Fortunately for America’s railways and rail passengers, the proposal passed both houses of Congress with a veto-proof majority, hopefully negating his stated intention of slowly strangling Amtrak in this critical hour.

You can check out Trains for America’s previous coverage of the bill, known as H.R. 6003 and S. 294 in the respective houses of Congress, read NARP’s letter to the committee members, or peruse general information about the the bill at Open Congress.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , , ,

State projects (Ohio, California) energized by passing of HR 6003 in House

Last Wednesday the House of Representatives passed HR 6003, which, in addition to increasing Amtrak’s budget, frees up grants for rail projects designated as high-speed. While President Bush has threatened to veto this forward thinking legislation for the benefit of his buddies in the oil, air, and auto industries, the bill has now passed both the House and the Senate with veto-proof majorities.

Although the House version, which has the language pertaining to high-speed rail, still needs to be reconciled with its Senate counterpart, states are already looking forward to the boosts their projects might receive if this legislation becomes law. California, which, as readers of this blog know, has been a focal point recently in the battle for fast trains, sees itself as one of the beneficiaries, but it’s not the only one. The Cleveland Plain Dealer says that planners of Ohio’s proposed rail system see hope in federal funds.

“This is a huge step,” said Stu Nicholson of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. “A bill like this could make the difference between a plan and a project.”

Ohio began working on the hub plan more than a decade ago with a mission to improve both passenger and freight rail service.

The plan includes more than 1,200 miles of track and 46 stations. The seven corridors would connect to planned or existing networks in neighboring states and southern Ontario

With the federal government hesitant to invest directly in high-speed trains, it’s good to see that regional projects are getting ready to take advantage of federal funds. This may be how America sees it own high speed rail network getting built: region by region, state by state. Let’s just hope that other states will catch on to this trend and not be left behind.

Ohio rail project site: here

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

Heritage Foundation gets it all wrong

Yesterday the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, published an online policy paper stating that HR 6003, the Amtrak reauthorization bill, “would be the costliest bailout in Amtrak’s 40 years of federal subsidies.” The cleverly woven spin in the report naturally misses the point of why Americans value rail travel, and why it’s important to our future.

Of course, they point out how Amtrak relies on federal subsidies:

Despite this massive subsidy and endless promises of improvement by a series of recent managers and board members, Amtrak is no closer to service sustainability today than it was 38 years ago, in large part because its passengers value the service at only a fraction of what it costs to provide it.

That’s basically a very economist way of saying that Americans like their travel to be affordable. And why not? I value my college education, but if the government didn’t subsidize it, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. Why shouldn’t effective transport be similar? And why can’t we spare money for our trains when we can hand out $20 billion to the oil industry each year? Those defending the oil subsidy would say those companies are providing a service to the country. Isn’t that what Amtrak is doing to an even greater extent? This report by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General also points out how piddly Amtrak’s public funding is compared to its European counterparts.

The Foundation also mobilizes its oh-so extensive environmental credentials, claiming that trains don’t offer that much of an environmental advantage over planes. What they fail to state is that increased energy efficiency in planes doesn’t come close to equating with decreased environmental consequences, not just from CO2, but also from other pollutants that are particularly potent when released high in the air. They also don’t consider that trains compete with car trips, which, in addition to consuming a large amount of energy per person, are incentive for the construction of more huge roads and hence more traffic congestion.

For this reason, the report’s conclusion rings pretty hollow:

The transportation challenges confronting the United States over the next several years will be unprecedented in their scope and difficulty. As congestion worsens and undermines the economic vitality of some metropolitan areas, voter skepticism about the competence of federal and state transportation officials has increased and in the process has discouraged efforts to increase the public resources available for transportation investment. Legislation such as H.R. 6003 deepens that skepticism by demonstrating that Congress is more interested in pandering to influential constituencies than in finding solutions to mobility and congestion relief.

So how do we meet this unprecedented challenge? What so-called “solutions” would they suggest? The answer isn’t continuing the self-perpetuating cycle of widening our roads. Americans want real cures for their transport woes, not bandages applied by those interests too afraid to end automobole hegemony for the greater good.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , ,

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