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Legislative Update June 2011

Too Many Casualties

We are not even halfway through the year and we have had far too many casualties amongst our BLET brothers and sisters already. At the National Association of State Legislative Board Chairmen’s Meeting held last month in Kansas City,Missouri, FRA Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety Jo Strang spoke of the recent tragedies and stated: “We need everyone to focus on safety in order to save their lives. Everyone needs to go to work alert, rested, and ready.” Now that would be a whole lot easier if the railroads would give our operating crews a 10-hour call to allow crew members to know when they need to be rested, wouldn’t it?

Nuclear Waste Disposal by the Nation’s Railroads

An expert commission appointed by the Obama administration last year has been looking for an alternative to the Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada to dispose of spent nuclear fuel that has been accumulating at U.S. reactors for years. The recent nuclear disaster in Japan has brought renewed urgency to the matter. The commissioner discussed preliminary recommendations at a public meeting in Washington, D.C., on May 13.

In his 2008 campaign, Obama had promised to shut down the controversial Yucca Mountain disposal site by the end of September 2011, and last year the energy department filed a motion to withdraw its application to store nuclear waste at that site, stating that it was “not a workable option.” By then, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was in the midst of a regulatory assessment that could have cleared the way for waste shipments to Yucca Mountain, as directed under a federal law that was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. The energy department’s decision to withdraw is being challenged within the NRC, in federal courts, and on Capitol Hill.

On June 1, House lawmakers were told by federal auditors that the nation’s policy for managing nuclear waste is up in the air and is daily becoming more pressing. A House GOP energy programs spending bill that was unveiled that same day would reverse the Obama administration’s decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain site. According to a House Appropriations summary, the FY 2012 appropriations plan for energy programs provides $35 million to support the YuccaMountain project, including $10 million for the NRC to continue licensing the project. The proposed bill also forbids any funding in the measure from being used to shut down the Yucca Mountain program, or actions that “irrevocably remove” the prospect that the site could be used as waste dump in the future.

As you are probably already aware, nuclear waste will be transported by rail from the storage pools at reactor sites where it currently is being stored to Yucca Mountain, or whatever site is finally identified for disposal of this waste, which presents a contamination risk for rail employees who operate these trains.

 

Scaling Back on Positive Train Control (PTC)

The Department of Transportation is working on changes in rail regulations that could save the railroads more than $1 billion over the next two decades. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently stated that limits in implementing positive train control could save $225 million to $400 million in installation costs, and up to $1 billion over 20 years counting maintenance. And at what cost to human life? You may recall that back in February, Senator Kay Baily Hutchison (R-TX) introduced S-301, a Senate bill to reduce the route miles mandated for PTC installation by the Rail Safety Improvement Act because of changing traffic patterns for shipping toxic materials. “We must rein in the regulatory bureaucracy in order to unleash innovation and investment, and spur job growth,” said Hutchison. I read the following amusing internet blog regarding Ms. Hutchison’s bill that went like this:

“What she’s calling for is symptomatic of the Republican mantra of reducing the size of government.  They use the pejorative phrase ‘regulatory bureaucracy.’  However, like the President, they believe in ‘innovation and investment’ as well as ‘job growth.’  So, train safety controls for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas are nothing more than excessive symptoms of a too large government. Confusingly, they endorse ‘investment’ even as they castigate it as code for further taxes.

“I imagine the opposite of PTC would have to be the unregulated anarchy of the rails, the rail Wild West, every train for itself, kill or be killed. And, about the other inference that safety controls inhibit innovation and investment.  Really?  If trains smash into each other, will that reduce investment?” (http://high-speedtraintalk.blogspot.com/2011/02/hit-brakes-on-this-train-i-want-to-get.html)

Senator Hutchison’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. John Thune (R-SD), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Tom Coburn (R-OK), was referred to the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation back in February.

Ann Begemen Sworn in as Surface Transportation Board (STB) Member

Ann D. Begeman was sworn in on May 2 as the third STB member, just in time to be ready for a crucial hearing on whether the rail regulatory agency should begin to alter longstanding carrier competition and shipper access rules. Ms. Begeman comes to the board from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees the STB. On the board, she joins Democratic appointees Francis P. Mulvey and Chairman Daniel R. Elliott, and replaces Charles D. Nottingham in the Republican board seat.

High-Speed Rail

More than $186 million of the federal money that was turned down by Florida for high-speed passenger rail projects has been awarded to Illinois for improvements on the 110-mph corridor between Chicago and St. Louis, raising the total to more than $1.4 billion that the Obama administration has awarded to Illinois for development of high-speed train service. The new funding will be used to finance track and signal improvements on the section between Dwight and Joliet. The new 110-mph service is scheduled to be ready for Amtrak passengers’ use in 2012 on the 20-mile stretch between Dwight and Pontiac. The next step would then be the stretch between Dwight and St. Louis in 2014. The timeframe for completing the leg between Dwight and Chicago has not yet been established.

Meanwhile, on May 9, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $2 billion in high-speed rail awards, providing an unprecedented investment to speed up trains in the Northeast Corridor, expand service in the Midwest, and provide new state-of-the-art locomotives and rail cars as part of the Obama administration’s plan to transform travel in America. Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak submitted nearly 100 applications, competing to be part of this historic investment that will create tens of thousands of jobs, improve mobility, and stimulate American manufacturing.

Amtrak Celebrates 40-Year Anniversary and Faces Threat of Privatization

Amtrak turned 40 last month and is going stronger than ever. With ridership back to a record-setting pace, the railroad is no longer limping along on the brink of extinction. It is buying fleets of locomotives and cars and making plans for a seven-mile tunnel between Philadelphia International Airport and Center City as part of its proposed “NextGen” high-speed rail service on the Northeast Corridor. The railroad’s debt has dropped from $4 billion in 2005 to less than $2 billion. Service between Washington and Boston has been operating at a profit and, nationwide, Amtrak recovers about 85 percent of operating costs. Ridership has grown more than 36 percent since 2000 and with the ever rising fuel costs, that trend is expected to continue.

Amtrak has moved aggressively to seek the funds forfeited in the high-speed rail plans that were nixed by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Florida, and plans to use those funds to build a $117 billion, 220-mph Northeast Corridor service that could transport passengers from Philadelphia to New York in only 38 minutes, and from Boston to Washington in three hours and 23 minutes. After New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled plans for a rail tunnel from New Jersey toNew York City, Amtrak seized the initiative in February with its $13.5 billion “Gateway” proposal for new Hudson River tunnels and other related improvements to eliminate the bottleneck into New York.

With outspoken support from President Obama and Vice President Biden, Joseph H. Boardman, who has served as President of Amtrak since 2008, has pushed for growth and modernization of Amtrak. However, Mr. Boardman believes that finding new sources of revenue for Amtrak is a must. The possibility of privatization of passenger rail would not be a good thing for us as BLET families for many reasons, including potential loss of jobs for union-represented Amtrak employees and loss of revenues in the Railroad Retirement System.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) plans to introduce legislation soon that will privatize operations in the densely populated region from Washington to Boston, stripping Amtrak of the most heavily used portion of its system, with almost 250,000 weekday passengers and the only real estate it owns. Amtrak holds title to all but 93 of the 456 miles of track between Union Station and Boston, whereas elsewhere in the nation, its trains travel on track owned by freight lines. The proposed legislation will face a partisan split and we must stay vigilant to encourage our legislators to support government financial support of Amtrak, as is the case with most all forms of public transportation in our country, including highways and air travel.

William Walpert Named to Railroad Retirement Investment Trust

Congratulations to BLET National Secretary-Treasurer William Walpert, who has been appointed to the Railroad Retirement Investment Trust board. This position will allow Mr. Walpert to help oversee the investments made by the trust.

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