Hotline #663

With great fanfare yesterday, a longtime NARP goal was realized with the dedication of the new West Side Connection. Several on-route ceremonies were held, with speakers including Amtrak President Graham Claytor, Sen. Al D'Amato (R.-N.Y.), Federal Railroad Administrator Gil Carmichael, New York DOT Commissioner Franklin White, Empire State Passengers Association President Stephen Salatti, and past president Frank Barry.

Now, Amtrak's upstate New York service is united with the rest of the system and gives update residents access to Long Island and New Jersey, and vice-versa. NARP and ESPA played an important role in promoting this project -- the region's most important intercity rail improvement since Pennsylvania Railroad electrification. The final Amtrak trains leave Grand Central tomorrow, and regular service begins April 7.

Don't forget that Amtrak and some commuter timetables change on April 7 and that local time advances an hour at 2:00 am April 7, except in Indiana and Arizona. Glossy, colored, national timetables will go out only to the travel industry this year. The public will get two timetables on plain paper -- one Northeast and one non-Northeast.

The southbound Illini derailed in a grade-crossing accident with a steel truck at Peotone, Ill., on March 28, injuring 20 passengers, none seriously.

The clock is still ticking toward a 12:01 am deadline on April 17 for a national rail strike. Still unclear is whether there will be a total strike or a selective one, but it is certain that either way, Amtrak and commuter operations using freight railroad property will be affected. Congress, which is out of session until April 9, will likely step in once a strike is called.

A bill to create a more even playing field for parking and transit benefits was introduced in the House late in March by Rep. Robert Matsui (D.-Cal.). H.R.1145 would increase the tax-free transit benefit an employer may provide from $15 to $60 a month; eliminate the "cliff effect," whereby if an employee receives $60.01 in benefits, the whole amount won't be subject to taxation; and expand parking benefits to the cost of parking at suburban transit lots. Please ask your Representative to cosign H.R.1145.

Sen. John Heinz (R.-Pa.) died yesterday in a small plane and helicopter crash over a suburban Philadelphia schoolyard; six others were killed, including two first-graders. Heinz was a moderate who generally supported transit but would vote against it when asked by the President, as in last year's Amtrak reauthorization veto-override attempt. Some Amtrak workers repairing a Main Line bridge near the school in Merion were among the first to arrive at the accident site.

DOT Secretary Skinner had more to say last week about the proposed third Chicago airport. Federal policy bars any net loss of wetland acreage, some of which the new airport site seems to incorporate. Skinner lamented that "many public works projects are being stopped by a puddle" and that the policy needs to be changed, particularly to accommodate the new airport. Clearly, this is another sign that our DOT secretary puts a higher priority on questionable transportation policy than on the environment.

Washington DOT has submitted a budget request of $10 million over two years to enhance Amtrak service. It must still be approved by the legislature, but as yet, the state still has not spent last year's $250,000 in Amtrak money.

The Alabama Association of Railroad Passengers urges its members to contact Gov. Guy Hunt and state legislators on the following -- continued 403(b) Gulf Breeze funding, funding for Alabama's 403(b) share of a Mobile-New Orleans train, study of a Birmingham-Huntsville 403(b) train, and formation of an Alabama Rail Department to handle passenger- and freight-rail matters.

Railway Age reports that Union Pacific is studying building an 8.4-mile tunnel through Oregon's Blue Mountains to bypass the worst 28 miles of the existing crossing. It would take several years to build, but would greatly improve UP freight and Amtrak Pioneer service.

The Houston City Council voted last week to build a 22-mile monorail system, even though it is slower and more expensive than a rejected light-rail system plan. Dallas light-rail construction is proceeding and will no doubt prove to be more practical.

A meeting crucial to the proposed Northern Virginia commuter-rail service will be April 8 at 7:30 pm, when the Spotsylvania County Board will consider supporting the service with a local gas tax. They are the last community to join in and there is some misguided anti-development sentiment there. The site is the County Administration Building on Route 208 in Spotsylvania Courthouse.

Standard and Poor's has lowered the bond rating for the Denver Airport down to BBB-, just one step above junk bonds. That will make it harder for them to borrow money, even though $500 million in contracts have been let out and work has already begun. It will also help drive up the total cost for the airport, which many feel doesn't need to be built anyway.

Grumman Corporation on Long Island will cut 1,900 jobs this year because of less defense work. Grumman no doubt had a role in getting its Congressmen, Senator Moynihan and Representative Mrazek, interested in maglev as a way to help employment in the post-Cold War era.

NARP Region 8 will meet on April 27 at the Dixie Inn, on US 2, just west of downtown Shelby, Mont., from about 11:30 am to 5:00 pm, between the times of the Empire Builder there.