Happening Now

Hotline #1,057

March 9, 2018

Senate Dems Issue Infrastructure Proposal; Gateway Program Dispute; Is Your Mayor Onboard?; Amtrak Pulls Back On Vermont PTC; TEXRail Breaks Ground

We Need Your ‘Nose For News’! When you see rail-related news stories, op-eds, editorials, or letters to the editor in your communities, send them along to us! We include them in our social media efforts, along with the weekly Hotline. Send your news items to Bob Brady, [email protected], and we will share it with members. Are you holding a rally, a community meeting, or another kind of rail-advocacy event? We can help spread the word if you send them to us. We can put them on the website, here. Please follow Rail Passengers Association on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on all things passenger rail.

Senate Democrats released a $1-trillion infrastructure plan Wednesday, as an alternative to the proposal released by the White House in February. Rather than slashing, shrinking and even eliminating aspects of passenger rail in the U.S.--like the White House proposal would--the Senate version provides balanced support for the country’s rail infrastructure to meet growing demand for public transit services. The Democrat’s anticipate that their proposal would create 15 million jobs, boosting the U.S. economy.

The "Blueprint to Rebuild America's Infrastructure" would include $180 billion to replace and expand rail and bus systems over the next 10 years. Specifically for rail, it would provide $50 billion to repair and modernize the national rail network through increases in federal funding for Amtrak, the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement program, the federal-state partnership program, and restoration and enhancement grants. The other $130 billion would go towards improving public transportation nationally, which also includes providing $90 billion for backlogs in repairs for transit systems.

“The Blueprint to Rebuild America's Infrastructure proposal offers a forward-thinking perspective on enhancing the country’s rail infrastructure - for both intercity and transit,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “Under the White House proposal we are looking at cutting Amtrak’s federal support in half, which would virtually eliminate long-distance routes nationwide, limiting travel options for millions of people that don’t have access to airports or long-distance bus alternatives.”

The proposal would also provide $10 billion for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, which so far has invested a little more than $5 billion into transportation investments nationwide.

To make the funding possible, the Senate Democrats’ infrastructure proposal would require reversing several measures of the recently passed tax cuts that support the “wealthiest few.” Additionally, the Democrats call for a bipartisan solution that ensures long-term solvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund, including the Mass Transit Account, which the White House proposal did not address.

Separately from the Senate Democrats’ proposal, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that Congress will pass several piecemeal bills that will address the country’s infrastructure. This diverges from the White House’s $200 billion proposal form earlier this year. Ryan predicted that Congress will begin drafting infrastructure legislation within the next week to two weeks, with aviation, water, and energy bills being passed in the summer.

Take Action Now!

Rail Passengers Association is asking its members to take action immediately to ensure that the White House proposal does not move forward with cuts to critical passenger rail services. Rail Passengers Association has set up an online tool to permit riders and members alike to let the White House know directly that they disagree with these proposed cuts.

Visit www.railpassengers.org/whitehousebudget to take action NOW!

The Trump Administration and Congressional leaders are involved in a heated back and forth on funding for the Gateway Program, which includes a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

This week U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao made the argument before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that the majority of the $13 billion tunnel project must be raised by New York and New Jersey and not the federal government, and President Trump has threatened to veto a comprehensive budget bill if funding for the rail tunnels is included in the Fiscal 2018 omnibus.

When pressed about a pre-existing agreement between the states and the Obama administration, Secretary Chao asserted no such agreement was ever reached. The agreement was to be between the states and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and it said the federal government would split the cost of the project with New Jersey and New York.

Secretary Chao also confirmed to the committee that President Trump has pressed Republican leadership to withhold funding for the Gateway program.

“These statements from Transportation Secretary Chao are very alarming,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “The Hudson River tunnels project is one of, if not the most critical project under development right now in the U.S. Yes, the new Hudson tunnel specifically links and is contained between New York and New Jersey, but the project is a vital artery for the Northeast Corridor as well as the entire country - in terms of our transportation and economy.”

A consensus has formed that the White House move against the project is motivated by a political spat between the President and his favorite target in the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who is a big supporter of the rail tunnels. The decision from the White House even seemed to surprise Republican leaders in Congress, who had passed boosts to rail funding in both houses with bipartisan support.

“This is essential to the national economy as well as the regional economy,” said Rep. Peter King (R-NY). “I support President Trump on a lot of issues, but on this one he’s wrong,” Mr. King said in an interview on Saturday.

Seeking to ease the tensions, Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-SD) said he thinks they will find a way forward. “[The omnibus] is hugely important, as is the [Gateway] project, so I think we’ll work it out.”

The Gateway Program is critical to the NEC, as well as the nation’s transportation services, as well as the economy. Bloomberg provides an insightful look through descriptions and charts at why development of the Gateway Program is more than just a New York or New Jersey issue. One driving factor of its importance, for example, is that the Northeast accounts for 30 percent of all jobs in the U.S. and contributes $3 trillion annually to the U.S. economy.

Imagine if the transportation network in the NEC came to a halt.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) did in 2016, arguing “[if] we don’t build this, and these tunnels fail, the whole economy will collapse. There will be a deep recession in the New York metropolitan area and a recession probably in the whole country.”

Make Plans NOW To Attend Rail Passengers Association’s Spring 2018 Advocacy Summit and ‘Day on The Hill’: Annual Congressional Reception and Meeting - Sunday, April 15 to Wednesday, April 18, 2018

  • Monday’s sessions will include presentations by Amtrak on PTC implementation and fleet strategy and from FRA on the ongoing Southeast & Midwest planning studies.

  • Rail Passengers Association’s ‘Day on The Hill’ is Tuesday, April 17. The Annual Rail Passengers Association Congressional Reception will be held that evening from 5:30pm - 7:30pm in the Capitol Visitors Center.

  • Wednesday’s Council Business Session will include the election of Board Officers & Directors and ‘At-Large’ Council representatives.

This is THE opportunity of the year for rail passenger advocates to have their voices heard directly by the decision makers on Capitol Hill. With drastic cuts being proposed for Amtrak and grant programs such as TIGER, it is VITAL that rail advocates make this year’s Summit and ‘Day on The Hill’ the largest event ever. We need to flood ‘The Hill’ with our message that passenger rail matters! Please join in this effort.

  • Event registration is now available! Registration rates will increase April 1st; don’t delay, sign-up today!

  • The host hotel is the Hilton Old Town Alexandria, located adjacent to the King Street Metro & Alexandria Amtrak Stations. Discounted group-rate rooms are now SOLD-OUT! Regular market rate rooms are available at the Hilton and a list of other nearby hotels can be found on the Events Page.

Through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded $16 million for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in southeast Colorado and New Mexico. The funding will go towards rehabilitating tracks that connect Chicago and Los Angeles.

“The Southwest Chief is an important means of transportation for Colorado rural communities and the surrounding region,” Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) said in a press release. “I was proud to fight for this grant at the federal level and am thrilled to deliver this news to southern Colorado.”

“The Southwest Chief is an engine of economic growth in New Mexico that connects rural communities from Raton to Gallup,” added U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). “This critical grant will fund badly-needed improvements to ensure a strong and stable future for the Southwest Chief in New Mexico. As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I’ll keep fighting for investments in rural infrastructure that benefit the economy and link communities across our state."

The grant is also a positive sign for advocates of the line and its future, who were concerned that the White House’s proposed cuts to Amtrak’s long-distance routes would have ended the route. Proponents were also concerned that the route would not receive the TIGER grant since requests last year failed to receive support.

“At a time when passenger rail is under threat, this is a very positive sign that the federal government is still interested in supporting the national network,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “Now, there’s much more work to be done, but every step forward encourages more investment, and we welcome it.”

Brightline is seeing ridership at a rate of three times greater than it expected since it launched service earlier this year. CEO Patrick Goddard addressed the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and said that the new line is surpassing expectations since people are eager to move from driving on the highway to riding the train.

“People are excited to be off I-95,” Goddard said. “We’ve gotten people out of traffic.”

Current service runs between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, while service to Miami is expected to begin by the end of April. After the train begins service to Miami, the next planned expansion is to Orlando.

Fort Worth officials, as well as TEXRail representatives, broke ground on the agency’s new transit center, Grapevine Main. The new station is set to be a major attraction for residents, young urbanites, and tourists, as Grapevine Main will be a mixed-use center for not only travel, but also dining, retail, hotels, offices, and special events at its 38,000-square-foot outdoor plaza. The hotel itself will include 121 rooms, and the plaza will feature interactive fountains, a memorial for Native American tribes and enough space for thousands of people to gather.

“The scope of TEXRail and the amenities that will be available for people at Grapevine Main and other stations signifies a great change in how cities are developing transit centers and stations,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “We are looking forward to seeing service kick off next year and provide a valuable transit alternative for people.”

Once the TEXRail line is completed in 2019, it will span 27 miles with stations in Fort Worth, Richland Hills, Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Grapevine Main will be about an eight-minute train ride from Terminal B at DFW Airport. Riders could also walk over to the Dallas Area Rapid Transit station at Terminal A where they could catch a light-rail train to destinations throughout Dallas and Collin counties.

Is Your Mayor Onboard?

As Congress finishes last year's budget process and plans ahead for next year's spending, it's critical that local cities play an active part in the process.

Contact your Mayor today!

Just last year, we saw efforts in both Congress and the White House to kill Amtrak's National Network. With a concerted campaign of station rallies, calls, and meetings, passenger advocates were able to turn back these efforts, and secure additional funding for passenger rail in both the House and Senate. Now we need to move these bills across the finish line.

That's why Rail Passengers Association is asking you to write your local Mayor's office and recruit them in the campaign for better train service for all Americans!

Rail Passengers is providing you with materials to help make your argument. But joining our campaign is as easy as clicking a button, so take action today!

Passenger Resources:

Two federal agencies are joining together on a new ad campaign to help raise awareness and safety efforts regarding railroad grade crossing. The campaign uses the slogan, "Stop. Trains Can't." and was launched by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The goal is to help educate motorists and pedestrians about the dangers of attempting to cross trains tracks since FRA data has highlighted an unfortunate statistic: a person or vehicle is hit by a train every three hours

Ads for the campaign will run in states that are home to the 15 most dangerous rail crossings and where 75 percent of the crossing accidents occurred in 2015 (based on data from the FRA). States targeted by the $4.3 million effort include California, Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Mississippi, New Jersey, Arkansas and Arizona.

Amtrak currently has no plans to suspend any service in Vermont, despite not having Positive Train Control (PTC) technology installed. Concerns that service would be halted were first raised after Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson addressed a U.S. House subcommittee on railroads and doubted that the company would continue to operate on PTC-exempt routes such as Vermont's. Anderson’s testimony, which came after Amtrak experienced three high-profile accidents in three months, caused a stir with many Amtrak supporters, including politicians, in Vermont who do not want the service to stop.

In the wake of the opposition, Amtrak's Bill Hollister said, “Right now we have no plans to cease any service on any route. Routes consist of the St Albans-Washington, DC, Vermonter and Rutland-New York City Ethan Allen Express trains. In Vermont, routes do not have to follow the Congressional mandate for following PTC installment by the end of 2018 due to the lower ridership and frequency of trains. Anderson said Amtrak was looking into what to do with these routes, with the potential to halt service.

In addition, Representative Peter Welch (D) said that he, along with Senators Bernie Sanders (I) and Patrick Leahy (D), are “committed to doing whatever it takes” to keep Amtrak service running.

And speaking of worries, Amtrak made more than a few West Virginia and Virginia travelers nervous earlier this week when, without warning or explanation either online or to station agents, the railroad stopped selling tickets to ride the Cardinal from any West Virginia stops to any points north of Washington, D.C. Today, Amtrak confirmed that this is not a permanent reduction in service but is instead tied to continuing efforts to address state-of-good repair backlogs in the Northeast Corridor. Beginning March 25, Amtrak is cancelling Northeast Regional Trains 152 and 153 “until further notice,” the railroad said in a passenger service notice, although those trains will run on July 4th to help relieve holiday crowding. On the Cardinal, Train 50 from Chicago will terminate in Washington beginning March 29, and Train 51 will originate in Washington to Chicago beginning April 1. It’s part of an effort to “minimize congestion in New York Penn Station during track work,” Amtrak says, without offering a timeline for the restoration of service. The timing is unfortunate for advocates, especially in West Virginia, where the Friends of the Cardinal was preparing to enter into talks with the West Virginia Tourism Commission on support for making the Cardinal a daily service. Right now it operates three times a week. The Rail Passengers Association, Virginians for High Speed Rail and Friends of the Cardinal obtained a copy of the passenger service notice confirming the move, although as of Friday afternoon the notice had not yet been posted on Amtrak’s website. We’re sharing copies of the notice with the station agents.

$10,000 Sweepstakes for Education Underway

Rail Passengers Association kicked-off a new sweepstakes in February for college students who can use assistance paying for higher education. Rail Passengers Association understands that paying for college is not easy, and this is why the Association is offering one lucky student a chance to win $10,000 for the 2018-2019 school year.

To be eligible to win the sweepstakes, students can nominate themselves, or a student can be nominated by someone else - a friend or a parent, for example. The only criteria is that the winning student must be enrolled in a U.S. accredited college or graduate program for the 2018-2019 school year.

For details on how to enter or nominate a student, as well as rules for the sweepstakes, please visit: www.crowdrise.com/rpascholarship. Nominations will close on April 26 at 11:59:59.

In Washington, D.C., the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) proposed replacing its current fleet of streetcars for new ones at a cost of $25 million. The current staple of cars have only been in use for two years, but have a lifespan of 31 years. Despite this, officials with the transit agency said that maintaining and repairing the streetcars would be more expensive than expected. Part of the issue involves the fact that one of the manufacturers is out of business. Another parts provider is overseas, which also contributes to time-consuming repairs.

“Long term parts availability will likely require reverse engineering parts,” DDOT officials wrote to the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment. The agency said it is exploring a strategy of acquiring vehicles in the future that “considers the feasibility of disposal of the current fleet.”

The replacement process wouldn’t begin until the end of 2020 or 2021, so the current fleet would continue to run on the 2.2-mile route on H Street, along with a forthcoming extension that is predicted to open in 2024. Another extension to Georgetown that would expand the route to eight total miles has been delayed due to costs. The original project called for a 40-mile streetcar through the city, but there are no plans of development beyond Georgetown at the moment.

Upcoming Regional Rail Passenger & State Association Member Meetings and Other Events:

  • Saturday, March 10 - Empire State Passengers Association & Rail Passengers Association Annual New York State Meeting & Lunch - Schenectady, NY

  • Saturday, March 10 - Galveston Railroad Day - Galveston, TX

  • Saturday, March 24 - Rail Passengers Association New England Regional Meeting - Boston, MA

  • Saturday, March 24 - Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers - Grinnell, IA

  • Saturday, April 14 - Delaware, Pennsylvania & New Jersey Rail Passengers Association Regional Meeting - Philadelphia, PA

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

Despite safety warnings and calls to take tracks out of service for repairs from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in D.C. found different results and continued service. For three months in a row, inspectors with the FTA inspected Metro tracks and found deteriorating rail ties and even a “black-level” defect that called for tracks be taken out of service. Despite the repeated warnings, Metro officials said they did not find the same levels of deterioration on the tracks during their own inspections.

A Washington Post analysis of FTA inspections of Metro in 2017 documented at least 27 instances where federal inspectors noted black-level conditions in the 117-mile rail system. The most recent “black-level” defect was from a November report. Metro says in 25 of the 27 cases, its workers did not find conditions as severe as those outlined by FTA inspectors.

The results from Metro raised questions with the FTA, as both agencies use the same guidelines and terms to define issues with the tracks.

“This is not a matter of an ‘us versus them’ dynamic with the FTA,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. “When a report of a track defect comes in, WMATA subject-matter experts respond to validate the report, assess the condition and determine appropriate mitigation. Upon further review/analysis with subject-matter experts on site, FTA inspectors will typically defer the final determination/resolution to the agency experts, as we are ultimately responsible for safeguarding the riding public.”

Geologists are now drilling 125 feet below the San Francisco Bay Area to determine if the ground can support the state’s high-speed rail line. The samples, taken from of the small town of San Martin and south of a town called Gilroy, will provide insights into what developers and construction crews need to build in order to avoid future issues.

“You don’t want to have this high-speed rail system settle. You don’t want to have other issues such as liquefaction or other soil conditions that cause the track to tilt or shift in any way,” Geologist James Wetenkamp said. “And so the data we collect here will help us determine how to design the foundation so that none of that happens.”

The testing in Gilroy will also help crews determine how vibrations will affect the ground around the train’s infrastructure. Teams are conducting shake tests to vibrate the ground in a manner similar to a train.

Engineering manager Randy Anderson said, “The train pushes in a wave in front of it. And the soil is not strong enough to resist that wave and so you start getting a motion in your embankment because the supporting soil isn’t strong enough.”

2018 ‘At-Large’ And Board Nominations Open

Rail Passengers Association/NARP is inviting members in good-standing to consider running for one of the up-to 10 available ‘At-Large’ positions on the Council of Representatives. These positions are for two-year terms. Elections will be held at the Council's Annual Business Meeting on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 in Alexandria, VA. For more information on the ‘At-Large’ positions, including the duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, and to submit a self-nomination, go to: http://ow.ly/Yxzs30hxl4P.

Self-nominations are also now being sought from qualified members interested in being elected by the Council of Representatives to an Association officer position (Chair of the Board; one of four Vice-Chairs; Treasurer or Secretary) or to one of three available Board Director positions. Board officer positions are for a two-year term and the Board director positions are for a three-year term. For information on Board Officer & Director positions, including the duties, responsibilities and required qualifications, and to submit a self-nomination, go to: http://ow.ly/LGSj30hxlaf.

The deadline to submit Candidate Information Statements is March 31, 2018.

The 2018 - 2020 State Representatives on the Rail Passengers Association Council of Representatives have now been announced. There are still a number of state representative openings available (as noted in the listing) and qualified Rail Passengers Association members in the applicable states are encouraged to consider seeking appointment to these positions. Please contact Bruce Becker for more information if you are would like to be considered.

Senate Republicans in Indiana have put a stop a new bill that could have cleared the way for development of a new light-rail project in Indianapolis. The proposed legislation, House Bill 1080, would have rolled back a previous state law banning passenger rail project development and allowed the Indianapolis area to begin planning and development of a light-rail line that supporters say the city needs to be competitive in the race for Amazon’s second headquarters. Indianapolis is currently on a short-list of cities the company is considering. However, the bill did not receive enough support from Republicans.

“This move is short-sighted and very unfortunate for the Indianapolis and its surrounding communities,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “A booming city like Indy deserves to have a vast array of transportation options that benefit not just riders but the larger economy, generating real estate investment, new retail and jobs.”

Rep. Justin Moed (D-Indianapolis) proposed the bill, which was also sponsored by Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis), and was disappointed the Senate didn’t even hear the proposal.

"I’m deeply disappointed the Senate chose not even to give it a vote and chose to turn the issue into a bit of partisan politics in regards to their fighting with the mayor," he said. "I think it’s political opportunism by folks who are running for re-election and looking for a reason to be relevant."

The decision on the bill was made during a private Senate GOP meeting, and came after Senator Mike Delph (R-Carmel) filed an amendment that would require Indianapolis to prove that money for the project isn't needed to fill city potholes. Even prior to the amendment, President Pro Tempore David Long (R-Fort Wayne) said the bill was not gaining support for several reasons.

"It feels a) like a boondoggle and b) like it’s just going to be a dinosaur technology in the very near future," Long said. "It wasn’t anti-anybody. It wasn’t partisan.”

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) determined that a passenger rail line between Minneapolis and Duluth will not pose a significant impact on the environment. The line, which would travel up to 90 mph, would share track with BNSF Railway freight trains, with service linking Target Field station in Minneapolis with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Duluth, as well as Superior, WI.

“It’s a significant hurdle because we can now work on getting an agreement with Amtrak, BNSF, and funding for final design and construction,” said Frank Loetterle, MnDOT’s project manager for the Northern Lights Express.

The finding from the federal agency will allow the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to identify federal and state funding sources for the Northern Lights Express, which is estimated between $500 million and $600 million. The state originally expected that the federal government would cover 80 percent of the project, but officials are unsure if that will be the case under the Trump administration.