Hotline #961

FRA Announces $25 Million Grants; More Issues for Metro; New HSR Plan in CA Approved

U.S. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx announced this week that he has replaced three members of Washington, D.C.’s Metro board in the face of ongoing safety issues. The three new board members, who will take office June 1, are Carol Carmody, former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; David Strickland, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and Robert Lauby, chief safety officer of the Federal Railroad Administration. Maintaining a safe and reliable infrastructure is critical, and politicians on Capitol Hill are witnessing the damage of forgoing funding firsthand as Metro system continues to struggle with providing safe transportation, following a fire on the city’s Red Line. Regular funding and support could over the past several years could have helped alleviate many of the problems the transportation system now faces.

The California High Speed Rail Authority’s revised business plan, which calls for a new $64 billion approach to the project, was approved by an overseeing board. The revised plans now will focus on connecting the Central Valley to the San Jose area, which officials say will ensure a usable segment of the project is built with the existing funding. The revised plan has been met with opposition from Central Valley lawmakers and activists after a planned stop in Merced already under construction was left out of the most recent proposal for the bullet train released this winter, prompting officials to reverse course again last week.

Overall, the newly approved plan includes 26 pages of changes that CHSRA will follow to bring high speed rail to California, with Phase 1 of the line running by 2025. And though the new plan has been met with resistance, students at Fresno City College pulled together to organize a forum in support of the rail line. Students, as well as other advocates including NARP, view high speed rail as a must have for infrastructure and transportation, which will help the state’s economic prosperity for the future.

NARP needs your help! NARP is concerned about language that was added to the transportation budget which, if approved, will erode the ambitious scope of the Consolidated Rail, Infrastructure and Safety (CRISI) grant program. While the Senate THUD Subcommittee approved $50 million in funding for the program, it also stripped eligibility for passenger-specific goals, including investment in stations, upgrades to to reduce train congestion, and enhancements to facilitate ridership growth. These were some of CRISI’s most exciting features, and NARP needs your help to restore them.

Click here to send an email to your Senator asking them to restore passenger eligibility for these funds when the transportation budget bill goes to the full floor!

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Rail Administration announced this week that it will provide $25 million in the form of competitive grants to support railroad infrastructure throughout the country. Though $25 million will not be able to provide a full array of infrastructure repairs, the money is earmarked for safety improvements and can be used for railroad crossings, track, tunnels, bridges, yards and other areas. Funding for the project comes from the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Acts, which funds DOT. The FRA will accept application until 5 PM on June 14, 2016.

This effort is also notable as it comes a week after U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee passed a transportation budget, under the FY2017 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, which will increase funding for passenger rail to $1.7 billion, which represents $76 million above the FY2016 enacted level. This includes $1.4 billion for Amtrak for the Northeast Corridor and National Network. The Appropriations committee also provided $525 million for TIGER grants (also known as National Infrastructure Investments), $25 million above the FY2016 enacted level; and $2.3 billion for Capital Investment Grants (New Starts).

Over the years, both programs have helped provide much needed investment in rail transit for the U.S., and with the passage of the bill (if approved once it goes to the full floor), combined with the FRA’s grants, the federal government can provide commuters with a strong, safer and far more reliable rail network.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled this week that when Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 it unconstitutionally gave Amtrak regulatory power over private railroads and competitors. This is the second time the federal appeals court has ruled against Amtrak. In 2008, Amtrak began working with federal regulators to determine appropriate metrics, on-time performance standards and service guarantees. However, Amtrak’s power as a customer of host railroads in setting standards was challenged by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which stated that the law gave Amtrak too much power over other railroads, such as freight operators. The court ruled in favor of AAR before the Supreme Court reversed the decision and asked the district court to review the case once again.

NARP’s President and CEO Jim Mathews stated in response to the court’s decision, “We’re currently reviewing the ruling with our legal counsel and will soon be able to provide a more detailed response. However, what is already clear is that this case is about certain host railroads trying to renege on the original deal they struck with the U.S. government when it helped them get out of the passenger business in 1971. In return, the railroads promised to give the congressionally-created Amtrak priority dispatching, and they need to live up to that agreement. This is about host railroads wanting to treat people like crude oil or coal. When passengers get on a train they deserve assurance that they'll get at least a basic level of service. Congress provided those guarantees in PRIIA, and we will continue to work to ensure those guarantees—and the passengers they protect—are not cast aside.”

A Change Comes to Amtrak

As of April 11th, Amtrak’s Business Class Cars and Quiet Cars on Northeast Regional trains are changing positions. Business cars will be located at the rear of the train, adjacent to the Quiet Car. Amtrak notes that the change will help the commuter rail agency improve operations and experiences for its customers.

Residents in the greater Seattle, WA area are not happy following the announcement that it is expected to take up to 25 years for Sound Transit to complete its ambitious light-rail project. In the neighborhood of Ballard for example, residents booed when Mike O’Brien, their Seattle City Council representative, said the neighborhood might not see light rail for 22 years. The problem that Sound Transit faces is due to the scope of the project, and the city’s effort to reach reach as many communities as possible. The $50 billion program offers 58 miles of light rail, including the Everett-Tacoma “spine,” spokes to Ballard, West Seattle, Issaquah and Redmond, a new downtown Seattle tunnel and a Paine Field loop, plus Sounder commuter rail to DuPont, I-405 and Highway 522 bus lines and park-and-ride spaces. Overall, officials say it will take a quarter century to complete every aspect of the transportation project.

The Lone Star Rail District, a government-funded agency that represents six counties and many cities and agencies in the I-35 corridor, has been working to connect San Antonio and Georgetown, TX by rail for more than a decade. Development of the rail line, known as LSTAR, hit a snag when Union Pacific pulled out in February, but as of now, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is discussing whether the group should should help some of the costs for planning the rail service. Many people agree the line is needed, but the $25 million already spent on planning the service has not produced a definite route, while some question if another organization should lead the effort. Now, the AAMPO board must decide whether it believes in the current iteration of the project enough to dedicate millions of dollars to planning it.

Boise, ID’s mayor, Dave Bieter, is pushing for dramatic changes in the city, which would change how the city views transportation. Mayor Bieter’s vision includes a transportation system that embraces all modes of transport, including pedestrians, bicycles, cars and public transportation. Bieter has long advocated for a rail-based transit system in and around Downtown, but restrictions on budget and funding have prevented the city from developing a plan for passenger rail. In a speech this week however, Bieter discussed using local-option tax — a hike on the sales tax rate inside Boise boundaries — as a way to pay for a transit system.

A list of the newly elected Board Officers & Directors and At-Large Representatives serving on the NARP Council of Representatives is available on the NARP website. Contact Information for all elected representatives is available to NARP members.

There are still openings for state representatives in several states. Check-out the full list of current vacancies here. 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.

Many residents in Los Angeles are counting the days until they can ride a new light rail train from the city to the ocean and other adjacent areas. The line, which will be the first time the city has utilized rail since trolley cars were discontinued in 1953, is expected to help transition commuters from their cars to public transportation. The rail line is not the only incentive either, as officials are pushing for a new half-cent sales tax and the extension of an existing levy that could raise $120 billion for transportation infrastructure over the next four decades. The new line cost $1.5 billion to develop, and opens May 20.

The city of Atlanta is now able to pursue a $2.5 billion expansion of MARTA following the signing of new legislation by Governor Nathan Deal. The expansion will most likely include a light rail system that runs along the Beltline. Passage of the bill will set a half-percent sales tax increase for transit initiatives, with the majority of funds supporting transit on the Beltline. A previous version of the legislation, Senate Bill 369, was stalled earlier this year after it divided urban and suburban lawmakers, but the bill was passed on the last day of the legislative session after a late compromise was struck.

In the past two years, passengers on Texas Eagle trains have experienced delays or been forced to ride on buses due to construction of a third north-south mainline track in the Fort Worth, Texas, Tower 55 project, the higher speed rail construction between Chicago and St. Louis and significant weather events on the route.

So to celebrate the completion of track upgrades and anticipated reduction in track delays in 2016, the Texas Eagle Local Revenue Management team, in conjunction with the Texas Eagle Route Director and Amtrak Central Division Marketing, will begin a special promotion for passengers between January and May 2016.

Passengers will receive a free companion rail fare when they buy one regular (adult) fare. The ticket must be purchased at least one day in advance of travel between January 5 and May 15, 2016, for travel between January 6 and May 20, 2016.

These fares may be upgraded to a sleeper after paying for an accommodation charge. The promotion is valid for travel only on the Texas Eagle. It is not valid for local travel between Chicago and St. Louis, or for local travel between San Antonio and Los Angeles. Fares are subject to availability, and seating is limited. Please use discount code V344 when booking the fare.

Metropolitan Planning Organization officials in Miami-Dade announced a plan to build six new rail lines, collectively known as the “SMART” plan. The SMART acronym was coined by Miami City Commissioner and MPO Vice Chair Francis Suarez, and it stands for “Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit.” Despite the optimism shown by the MPO, it will likely be several years before anything gets built, as the plan did not include a timetable for development or a funding source for the project.

Though the need for increased public transportation has been expressed by commuters in Miami-Dade, the Miami Herald’s editorial board expressed concern that the new plan is only good for making headlines during an election year. The board notes that there needs to be a plan before funding, but that the county’s public transit needs would require about $12 billion. The half-penny sales tax increase that voters approved for transit in 2002 may be able to generate a couple billion dollars in bonds to build one new line, but there’s no way it’s enough for six lines.

Concurring With Senators, NARP Presses For New Amtrak CEO Committed To Growing A Unified National Passenger Network

Advocacy Group Urges Appointing A Visionary New Leader For America’s Railroad

National Association of Railroad Passengers President and CEO Jim Mathews has written to Amtrak’s entire Board of Directors to urge them to consider a vibrant, visionary railroad leader as Amtrak’s new President and CEO rather than an administrator or someone from outside the rail industry.

NARP has not and will not endorse any particular candidate. Instead the Association, the only national organization speaking for the nearly 40 million users of passenger trains and rail transit, will press for a CEO dedicated not just to preserving but to growing all three of Amtrak’s business lines – the National Network, the Northeast Corridor and state-supported routes – while advancing a real vision for transformative but responsible change.

“It’s a difficult but important balancing act,” said Mathews. “It’s clear that an inexperienced CEO, or one not fully committed to the entire system, would not enjoy sufficient congressional support to be effective. By the same token, someone too steeped in prevailing railroad culture, with an inability to see beyond the old ways of operating railroads, will be ill-equipped to meet the challenges of this next century head on.”

NARP members nationwide support the positions taken by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), that the next CEO boast significant relevant professional experience along with a genuine commitment to a unified passenger rail system.

Additionally, NARP has asked the Board to consider five broad themes as it assesses CEO candidates:

  1. The next Amtrak CEO should want to create a truly 21st Century network, with enough capital funding for safe operations and growth.

  2. The next CEO needs to develop strong partnerships with freight railroads who, ever since making their deal with the federal government to take passenger service off their hands, have been required to provide their best service at their lowest prices to support passenger routes.

  3. For the good of the enterprise, the next CEO needs the skill and patience to broker a “peace agreement” among Amtrak’s many internally warring tribes – not just labor-management, but internecine and interdepartmental sparring.

  4. The next CEO needs the tenacity and creativity to fight relentlessly for service operated with modern locomotives and passenger cars, outfitted with modern amenities on a first-world transportation infrastructure.

  5. The next CEO should be an evangelist for truly customer-focused service, with modern amenities on-board, safe and reliable accommodation and nourishing and pleasing food and beverages.

“The next CEO needs to believe fervently in a vision for Amtrak worthy of a 21st Century America, should have the enthusiasm to convert others to that vision and should have a demonstrated track record of translating ambitious vision into tangible results. That doesn’t happen when one person tries to micromanage every function. It happens when a knowledgeable, forthright, decisive and optimistic CEO inspires the entire team – from the boardroom to the coach-cleaners – to believe in the possibilities of success,” Mathews wrote in his letter to the Amtrak Board and Board Chairman Anthony M. Coscia.

The full text of the letter can be found here.

NARP thanks those members who have sent in industry-related news stories, op-eds, editorials or letters to the editor from your communities. We include them in our social media efforts, along with the weekly Hotline. Please send your news items to Will Hubbard,, and we will continue to share it with the membership. We also ask members to send events that we can put on the website, here. And please follow NARP on Facebook and Twitter.