Happy New Year! Hope that 2010 is off to a good start for everyone.

The first session of the 111th Congress ended when the Senate adjourned on December 24 after the passage of the health care reform initiative. They will reconvene on January 20 to begin what is likely to be a prolonged debate over legislation to increase the debt limit for a second time within a month or so. The House departed for the year on December 16 and will reconvene on January 12.

Between now and the time lawmakers return, House and Senate Democratic leaders and key committee chairmen will be working behind the scenes to draft a final version of the health care overhaul.

Red Shirt Fridays

BLET National President Paul Sorrow is asking all BLET members to join with other Americans across the nation and wear a red shirt every Friday in the coming New Year to show solidarity and support of our troops. Please pass this along to your family, friends, and neighbors, and keep our soldiers in your thoughts and prayers every day.

Health Care Reform

The biggest news from the last month is the passing of the health care reform initiative in the Senate on December 24 in a 60 to 39 party-line vote, after 25 straight days of debate.  Only one Republican Senator, Olympia Snow of Mainesupported the bill. This was the first time since 1895 that the Senate had gathered for a vote on Christmas Eve. A similar bill was passed in the House in November by a vote of 220 to 215. As negotiations get underway to reconcile the measures passed by the two chambers, please be sure to call your members of the House to insist that they sign on to a letter circulated by Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT) opposing the excise tax on health insurance that is included in the Senate’s version of the legislation.

The 40 percent excise tax on health care plans with a value equal to or greater than $8,500 for individuals, and $23,000 for families, would impact nearly 39 million households and 40% of health care plans by 2019. This tax is to be imposed on insurance companies; however we all know that it will ultimately be passed on to the beneficiaries, including BLET members.

Please call the U.S. Capitol switchboard now at 202-224-3121 and ask to speak to the House of Representative member from your congressional district. Encourage them to join the 190 other members who have already signed on to the Courtney letter. If your representative has already signed on to the letter, thank them for their support and urge them to hold strong on their decision to support this proposal. To see the list of representatives who have signed on to the letter, go to:  http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/newsflash.asp?id=4921.

High Speed Rail

The BLET’s position paper on high speed rail has been finalized and is available online at RAIL_BLETProposal825.pdf.

Surface Transportation Board Reform

On December 15, Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced S. 2889, the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2009, which has been dubbed by the Senate’s Science, Commerce, and Transportation Committee as the largest reform of rail regulations since the Staggers Act, and is carefully crafted to address rail-shipper imbalances and strengthen the railroad sector. Among other things, the bipartisan legislation would fund the Board from 2010 through 2014 and expand it from three members to five. One of the new appointees may be from a nonprofit rail labor organization and the other from rail customer communities. The legislation would make the STB an independent government agency, free from governance by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and addresses bottlenecks, paper barriers, and captive shipper issues. It also proposes employee protections on abandonments and interchange agreements.

The Consolidated Federal Budget for FY 2010 was passed the week of December by both the House and Senate. As posted on the BLET National Legislative Department website ( http://www.bletdc.org/ ) on December 14, the following provisions of the bill are the ones that are of most interest to BLET members and their families:

  • Federal Railroad Administration: Federal Railroad Administration received $172,270,000 for safety and operations and $37,613,000 for railroad research and development.
  • High Speed/Intercity Passenger Rail Grants: $2.5 billion ($1.5 billion above the request and $2.4 billion above 2009) to provide grants to states or Amtrak for high speed/intercity passenger rail to create a 21st Century passenger rail system that reduces congestion and environmental impacts.
  • Amtrak: $1.6 billion ($81.7 million above the request and $74.6 million above 2009) to support the national passenger rail system.
  • National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Investigators: $98.1 million ($2.7 million above the request and $7.1 million above 2009) to modernize the NTSB crash investigation laboratory and provide 14 additional investigators and technical support to respond to and investigate transportation crashes in the aviation, rail, highway, marine, and pipeline sectors.
  • Positive Train Control: $50 million for grants to invest in railroad safety technology, including positive train control, which helps prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, and casualties or injuries to roadway workers. This system helps railroads meet the requirement included in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2009 that Class I railroads implement positive train control systems by the end of calendar year 2015.
  • Firearms on Amtrak: The bill gives Amtrak one year to implement a new policy regarding unloaded firearms in checked baggage. Before the policy is implemented, Amtrak will submit a report to Congress with a security evaluation and proposed guidelines and procedures. Once implemented, Amtrak passengers who give 24 hours notice to Amtrak will be able to put unloaded firearms and/or ammunition in checked baggage. This option will be available at Amtrak stations that accept checked baggage.
  • National Mediation Board: The NMB received $13,463,000 for expenses necessary to carry out the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, including emergency boards appointed by the President.