Hotline #1,009

Vote on One Job-Killing Bill Postponed in FL; TX Senate to Vote on Bills that Target Passenger Rail; MARTA Increases Service Following I-85 Fire and Collapse

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In an encouraging reprieve for All Aboard Florida’s Brightline rail system, the state’s House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee indefinitely postponed its vote on a proposed bill that could crimp the rail line. While advocates must stay alert for any attempt by anti-rail legislators to reschedule a vote—perhaps even a surprise vote—it appears that the public pressure exerted by passengers and NARP members in Florida has won the day.

The bill, HB 269, which was spun as a “safety precaution,“ would require All Aboard Florida to install safety features and pay for fencing along sections of its tracks where pedestrians could be at risk. However, the bill would have dictated how All Aboard Florida could use its property. Ultimately, it would have ended the possibility of new train service in the state. With the postponement of the vote, and the subcommittee not expected to meet again during this year’s legislative session, the bill could die.

Despite the news, a second anti-rail bill, SB 386, was supported by the state Senate’s Committee on Transportation earlier this month. It still needs to be voted on by the Senate Community Affairs Committee. But, if passed, the bill would not only threaten the expansion of Brightline service, but it could jeopardize the future Gulf Coast Rail restoration project currently underway.

After the vote was postponed, Brightline’s Vice President of Government Affairs Rusty Roberts said that “overwhelming input” in support of the rail service was making “an impact” on the bill. With positive momentum in the state, NARP’s Floridian members can still voice their concerns on SB 386 and help see that the Brightline rail project continues to move forward.

Passenger advocates in Texas will want to look to Florida as a model, with a draft of anti-rail bills targeting the Houston to Dallas bullet train scheduled in Austin for Tuesday, April 3rd.

The State Senate’s Committee on Transportation is scheduled to vote on the bills Tuesday of next week. The bills would impose government regulations that restrict certain business activities and investments. Some of the bills even target passenger rail, specifically, creating an uneven playing field on which transportation companies can compete.

“If passed, these bills would deal two blows to Texas. First, by killing 40,000 direct jobs in construction and engineering that would be created over four years, and an additional 1,000 permanent jobs in operating and maintenance. The second through the loss of a desperately needed alternative to the overcrowded highways connecting two of the country’s fastest growing mega-regions, Dallas and Houston,” said NARP Chairman Peter LeCody

NARP has provided a useful tool for Texas passengers to easily submit letters in opposition to the bills, and you can also call your Texas State Senator and ask them to oppose the following bills:

  • SB 977 - Relating to the use of state money for high-speed rail operated by a private entity.
  • SB 979 - Relating to the acquisition and disposition of real property intended for high-speed rail projects.
  • SB 980 - Relating to state money or credit or a state guarantee used or provided for high-speed rail owned by a private entity.
  • SB 981 - Relating to the compatibility of a high-speed rail facility with multiple types of train technology.

Georgia Department of Transportation officials have yet to determine the source of a fire that collapsed 350 feet of Interstate 85 in Atlanta, but warned commuters to turn to MARTA to help navigate what is expected to be months of severe traffic congestion while repairs are being made.

Atlanta's rapid transit rail system, MARTA, has responded to the crisis by adding frequencies to handle the spike in ridership, and will have extra staff at stations to help accommodate the spike in passengers. City officials are publicly encouraging commuters to turn to the service in response to the crisis.

“We need a flashback moment to when we had the Centennial Olympic Games… I really think that is the closest comparison to a traffic standpoint to what we’re going to be going through the next four to six to eight weeks,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “My message to all of you is get your MARTA maps out.”

Predicting that many in the sprawling, car-centric city have little transit experience, the Atlanta Journal Constitution came out with a guide for first time MARTA riders.

This isn’t the first time MARTA has saved Atlanta’s commuters. During a 2014 winter storm that dropped a light dusting of snow and ice across the region, the notoriously snow-phobic city ground to a halt. MARTA came to the rescue, running normal service during the automotive havoc.

It’s a valuable lesson in the need to invest in a multimodal transportation system, to provide redundancies and protect against single points of critical failure.

Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao now says that President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan will most likely look well beyond rebuilding the country’s bridges, roads, rail lines and airports. Secretary Chao’s comments came during the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 50th Anniversary Open House, and also reflected a desire for Republicans to get several projects attached to the plan following the defeat of the GOP’s healthcare plan last week. Secretary Chao stated that the infrastructure plan “will include energy, water, and potentially broadband and veterans’ hospitals as well.” These elements have been discussed before on Capitol Hill, but veterans’ hospitals is a new addition to the mix, and could be seen as a measure to gain additional support for passing the forthcoming bill.

Details of the infrastructure plan remain vague, but would be welcome in light of the Trump Administration’s proposed budget outline, which slashes transportation funding by 13 percent. Like NARP, the American Public Transportation Association has called on the Trump Administration to fully fund the FAST Act for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. In doing so, APTA urged the administration to include public transit as part of the $1 trillion infrastructure investment. Funding losses in the proposed budget would otherwise significantly limit or eliminate Amtrak service at over 200 communities across the country, while also jeopardizing dozens of major transportation initiatives, like the Hudson Tunnel Gateway project, Maryland’s Purple Light Rail Line and a light-rail project in Phoenix.

Several media outlets have also highlighted what could be lost should Amtrak’s long-distance train service be reduced or eliminated. CNN produced a photo gallery that highlights not only the California Zephyr and its amenities, but also the people who take it and the views it provides of the country as it travels between Chicago and San Francisco.

Amtrak Executive Vice-President Stephen Gardner sought to allay fears of a shutdown of the Long Distance Routes before a meeting of international railroaders in London on March 29, suggesting there is little chance of the proposals clearing Congress.

“The cost and logistical complexity of removing these trains would be prohibitive, we feel,” Gardner said. “There is a reason that they have survived through recent decades,” adding the routes play an important role serving intermediate markets.

While Amtrak is right to advise against undue panic, it’s critical to note that the reason discontinuing long distance routes would be so politically painful is because of the public outcry that followed the proposal. NARP and our regional coalition partners have been incredibly effective at rallying public opinion in support of the 144 million Americans whose only access to the rail network is a long distance service--and who want, need and deserve mobility as much as anyone--in response to this threat, and we shouldn’t let a successful campaign launch lull us into false sense of complacency.

Help NARP Stand Up For Passenger Rail

Following a terrible White House budget proposal that would slash funding for Amtrak and other critical rail projects, NARP has asked all passengers to rally in support of trains—and you answered!

Recent pressure against Trump’s budget has resulted in tangible benefits on Capitol Hill: Representatives Seth Moulton (D-MA), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) are spearheading a Member Submission to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation leadership—Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart and Ranking Member David Price—asking appropriators to provide full funding for Amtrak and passenger rail programs authorized under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a bipartisan, bicameral law passed with overwhelming support in 2015.

Now, these Members of Congress need your help!

NARP needs you to ask your representatives to sign on to this Members’ Letter. Our Take Action page will provide you with talking points to guide your call. If they’ve already signed the letter, please remember to thank them.

The House deadline for submissions is April 4th, so call today!

In an effort to increase transparency between rail transit agencies and the federal government, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee supported a new bill that requires the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to alert affected congressional members and committees when the agency begins a comprehensive safety audit of a commuter or intercity passenger-rail system within their jurisdiction. The bill was introduced by by U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) following the NJ Transit accident that killed one woman in Hoboken last year. During the investigation, it was revealed that the agency was under a safety assessment by the FRA for a series of safety violations. Sires stated, "It is my hope that commuter and intercity passenger rail agencies, members of Congress, and the FRA can work together to make these systems safer.”

Should the FRA conduct a safety assessment, the agency must alert Congressional members within 10 business days of starting the review, and 90 days after the assessment if completed. The FRA would also notify the transportation committees in the House and Senate.

A recent Atlas Obscura article highlights the role simple human behavior plays in Japan’s rail-safety culture and its unique approach to safe and efficient rail transportation, suggesting that the U.S. could learn from their experience. For years Japan has trained its rail employees in the discipline of “pointing-and-calling” or shisa kankoo in Japanese. This reliance on human factors rather than technology requires employees to make a physical motion and audible sound when performing a specific function. For example, when performing a speed check, an engineer will point at the speedometer and call out, “speed check, 80” to confirm the action. Japan has proven that “pointing-and-calling” works to prevent accidents by “raising the consciousness levels of workers,” according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan.

The protocol may appear simplistic to some, or even odd to tourists, but it has helped Japan safely carry 12 billion passengers a year with on-time performance measured within seconds. It has also helped Japan reduce workplace errors by up to 85 percent. The New York City subway system has adopted a modified version of pointing-and-calling, and it may be time for other systems to think about whether they might follow suit.

Speaking of changing human behavior, if you haven’t participated in NARP’s in-district campaign, NOW is the perfect time to get involved as decisions get made about rail budgets in Washington!

NARP is providing you with the tools, but we need your help doing these three things:

  1. Meet with your in-district staff contacts for all three congressional representatives (one representative, two senators), either in-person or over the phone, to ask them to support an infrastructure bill
  2. Importantly: communicate significant points of agreement, disagreement, and intelligence back to NARP staff
  3. Post a photo of yourself visiting + calling your Members of Congress, and post it online using the tag #MyTrainMyTown and #AConnectedAmerica (or email it to us at NARP[@], subject line "My Train, My Town")

To access more advocacy resources, including NARP’s Guide to Engagement, click here.

In Eau Claire, WI, City Council members approved a proposal for a passenger rail line to St. Paul, MN. The unanimous vote in support of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition looks to develop the line through a private sector initiative with local businesses. The rail line has strong demand from millennials and baby boomers who want alternative forms of transit between the two cities. In recent years, the City Council passed three separate resolutions in support of passenger rail. However, none of the resolutions were adopted by the state due to lack of support.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) proposed a new $727.23 million budget this week that would help the transit agency move forward with its 12-year plan for $7.3 billion in transit projects. The long-term plan for SEPTA, known as the “Rebuilding the System” initiative, originally was proposed in 2013. It would allow the agency to purchase new rail cars and buses, repair and replace bridges, stations, vehicle maintenance facilities and other critical infrastructure. Also, SEPTA would be able to update its safety and security features, as well as communication equipment to provide riders will real-time information.

For its 2018 budget, SEPTA is asking for an $180 million increase over 2017. It would focus more than $240 million on new buses for the system. In addition, $51 million would go toward new electric locomotives for 2018. Last week, SEPTA also ordered 45 multilevel rail cars for $137.5 million that the new locomotives will pull. SEPTA would also seek to fully implement its SEPTA Key card which will replace tokens and passes as the only available source of paying for fares. Public hearings will be held on April 26, and SEPTA’s board will vote on the budget May 25.

State officials in Maine voted against a new study that would examine the possibility of expanding passenger rail service from Brunswick to Bangor. Rep. John Schneck, D-Bangor, was the only official to vote in support of the proposal, and Bangor was the only municipality to offer funds in support of the study. Bangor officials were willing to provide $25,000 towards the study, but no other support came forward. In addition, state lawmakers are awaiting the results of a pending $400,000 study into possible expansion of passenger rail service from Brunswick to Lewiston-Auburn. The price tag of the current study also contributed to killing the proposed bill.

Register TODAY to attend NARP’s Spring 2017 Advocacy Summit & Meeting in Washington, DC - Sunday, April 23 through Wednesday, April 26, 2017. NARP’s 2017 ‘Action Day On The Hill’ & Congressional Reception will be held on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Early bird registration rates are valid through Friday, April 7 - HIGHER rates in effect after this date and for at-the-door registrations! Visit the Event Page for complete registration information, the most current agenda and other details of this great advocacy opportunity.

With the release of President Trump’s budget, which would eliminate all national network train service to more than 220 cities and towns across the country, this year’s ‘Action Day On The Hill,’ will be of critical importance. The Advocacy Summit’s theme, ‘My Town, My Train,’ will serve to highlight the vital connection between grassroots advocacy and passenger rail service in communities across the country.

The Host Hotel is the Sheraton Silver Spring (MD), which is located just three blocks from Metro’s Red Line Silver Spring station. FYI...Discounted group rate rooms are now sold out! Regular rate rooms at the Sheraton are available on all nights. Information on other available nearby hotels in Silver Spring can be found on the Event Page.

And Save These Dates!

NARP’s 2017 Passenger Rail EXPO And 50th Anniversary Celebration - Chicago, IL

  • Thursday, November 2 to Sunday, November 5, 2017
  • Four days packed with an exciting array of presentations, speakers, exhibits, tours, and events
  • Celebrating NARP’s accomplishments over the past 50 years and looking ahead to the future of passenger rail in the United States
  • Host Hotel: Millennium Knickerbocker
  • Hotel Reservations and Event Registration Will Open In Early May

Debate continues about the best place for Buffalo, NY’s new train station -- the historic Central Terminal or downtown Buffalo. When looking at costs for building a new station, Rep. Brian Higgins is advocating for the Central Terminal, which he contends could be significantly cheaper to build. This is despite the fact that the state Department of Transportation hired an engineering consultant that estimated the cost of a station at Central Terminal to be between $68 million and $149 million. The same firm estimated it would cost $34 million to $86 million to build a station downtown. Higgins states that the Central Terminal option could be $20 million less than estimated due to the building’s eligibility for federal historic tax credits, though it is unclear if the cost estimate includes funds for the extensive track and signal modifications necessary to return train service to Central Terminal. A site decision by the 17-member selection committee is expected by the end of April.

New Jersey is also receiving a boost in funding to assist with repairing and building bridges and roads, and the state’s public transit systems. Governor Chris Christie signed a new bill that will provide $400 million for the state's Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), which is being funded through a 23-cent gas tax increase. The State Department of Transportation will receive $260 million for roads and bridges, and New Jersey Transit will receive $140 million for improving its safety and technology systems.

Upcoming Regional NARP and State Passengers Association Member Meetings

Please contact Bruce Becker to have a local, state or regional meeting added to the NARP calendar of upcoming events!

In New York, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society (ARPS), continues its legal battle against the state in order to keep 34 miles of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad from being turned into a multi-use trail. This week, ARPS noted that state officials may take an alternative approach to building the trail if a judge agrees with the lawsuit from ARPS that “the state does not have sufficient ownership rights to implement the UMP (unit management plan).” In that case, the rerouted part of the trail would run along streets and sidewalks in Saranac Lake. After New York officials finalized plans, it was discovered that the state did not own fee title to two parts of the corridor’s land: One area at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, and one parcel at the Lake Placid train depot. Currently, no timeline exists for new hearings nor a decision from the judge overseeing the case.

On Monday, three cars of Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited derailed just outside of Chicago Union Station. The train was carrying nearly 200 passengers and nine crew members, but no one was injured during the minor accident. Amtrak officials are examining the cause of the derailment.

City Council officials in Washington, DC, are considering a new bill that would see public transit commuters get paid for taking the train or bus, instead of driving a car. Specifically, the bill would require employers to pay transit benefits, such as pre-tax passes or cold hard cash, if they also provide free parking to that employee. According to case studies by UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup, these types of programs have been successful in Los Angeles. Studies showed that they can decrease the number of drivers who drive to work alone by 17 percent. The programs are also shown to increase rates of carpooling, transit riding, biking, and walking. Should the D.C. City Council approve the bill, it would be among the first big American cities with an enforceable cash-out program.

There are openings for state representatives on the NARP Council of Representatives, including one each in Alabama; Arizona; Florida, Hawaii; Idaho; Missouri; Pennsylvania, Nevada; North Carolina; North Dakota: Ohio, Virginia (2 openings) and Wyoming. Check out the full, up-to-date, list of current vacancies here.

If you live in one of these states and want to become more active in NARP’s leadership and work, this is your opportunity to become involved. If you are interested in being considered for an appointment to an open state seat by the Board of Directors please complete this Candidate Information Statement.