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Legislative Update June / July 2013

Committees in both House and Senate pass appropriations bills for Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development

On June 27, the committees in both the Senate and the House passed bills that will decide funding for transportation, housing and urban development programs in fiscal year 2014. The Senate version includes funding for many of the country’s most important community development programs. The Department of Transportation’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant program would receive $550 million to support a wide variety of transportation projects including bridges, public transit, and railroads. The bill also proposes a $1.45 billion funding level for Amtrak, which Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman claims is a realistic and workable number.

The House version, however, would provide no funding for many of the programs that enjoy bipartisan support in the Senate. The House voted to strip all funding from DOT’s TIGER program and rescind funding awarded in the last fiscal year. The House version also would slash Amtrak funding for debt and capital service by 34% and 19% from operating funds from last year and eliminate funding for high speed rail. A House Democratic aide said the bill’s funding levels could cripple the railroad, requiring cuts to long distance trains, maintenance and equipment replacement, as well as the furlough of hundreds of mechanics.

Several amendments to the House bill were adopted on a voice vote by the full committee. An amendment by Rep. Ed Pastor (D-AZ) was approved to rescind any unobligated funding for MagLev rail projects, and add the funds to rail crossing safety and planning programs. Another amendment, introduced by Rep. David Valadao (R-CA), would prohibit the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) from taking action on initial construction phases until the STB has given final approval to the entire project.

With the bills from both chambers being so different, the next step in the appropriations process is to have the bills considered on chamber floors. As our members of Congress continue to debate these programs in the coming weeks, they need to hear from their constituents that these programs are important. If you have not already done so, please call your congressmen and ask them to support full funding of Amtrak and High Speed Rail!

California High Speed Rail Project Faces Many Obstacles

Although the California High-Speed Rail Authority had won approval earlier this month to start construction this summer on the first leg of what would be the nation’s first bullet train, that plan could be thwarted if certain proposed provisions of the House version of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Authorization Bill become law. On June 13, the STB ruled 2-1 that the initial 65-mile stretch between Fresno and Merced would be exempt from the customary requirement that railway construction first obtain prior approval from the Board, and gave the green light to begin work, as long as it maintains the current route and follows through on promises to mitigate damage to the environment caused by construction. The decision followed an intense lobbying campaign, in which high-speed rail advocates, including Gov. Jerry Brown, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, and several labor unions urged that the board exempt the project from prior approval from the federal board. Skeptics weighed in on the other side, saying continued federal scrutiny was warranted. The fight even drew in lawmakers from other states, including New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and Florida. This project would create thousands of jobs in California’s Central Valley and provide a valuable addition to California’s passenger rail transportation system that is now operating at or near capacity and would require large public investments for maintenance and expansion to meet existing demand and future growth over the next 25 years or beyond.

If the amendment proposed by U.S. Rep. Valadao (R-CA) to the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Authorization Bill becomes law, it would slow construction of the high-speed rail project. Specifically, the amendment blocks the STB from taking further action on any section of the project until the three-member board has formally approved the entire project. Overall approval could be years away, pending completion of a massive environmental impact study and a financing package.

Jeff Denham (R-CA), the only California representative on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is highly critical of any expenditure of federal funds for the high speed rail project. He has stated on record that he believes that the $6 billion allotted to the California Authority, and the jobs that go with it, would be better spent on upgrades to the Northeast Corridor.

BLET Testifies before Congress in Support of Amtrak and Positive Train Control

On June 27, at the same time that the House Appropriations Committee was voting on legislation for Fiscal Year 2014 that would slash Amtrak funding 29% from last year, BLET Vice President and National Legislative Representative John Tolman testified before Congress in support of long-term federal funding for Amtrak and the need to improve railroad safety through the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) and other safety measures. In his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Railroads, at a hearing entitled “National Rail Policy: Examining Goals, Objectives, and Responsibilities,” Tolman reinforced the need for Amtrak’s long-term funding and the continued need for cooperation between freight railroads and labor to provide stimulus to our industry and the economy. He further emphasized the need to do all this while making the critical strides necessary to enhance rail safety.

Tolman also testified that the National Rail Plan should protect unionized rail jobs, stating that it is imperative for any National Rail Policy or Plan to protect the interests of the men and women who work on America’s railroads.

With regard to PTC, Tolman stated that the implementation of this technology will save lives and the BLET strongly supports PTC on our nation’s railroads. He chastised the rail industry for seeking an extension of the federally-mandated deadline of December 31, 2015 for installation of the life-saving technology. He stated: “This technology will prevent the most egregious and catastrophic accidents where hazardous materials or passenger trains are involved, protecting the public and railroad employees. PTC needs to move forward.”

Tolman further stressed the need for support of Amtrak and passenger rail, pointing out the ridership records set by Amtrak in recent years in spite of being underfunded. Amtrak has moved ahead with providing a version of PTC to help protect its employees and the public, some of which has been in place since 1996. He stated that, “Now is not the time to nickel and dime the system; now is the time to stimulate the economy and invest in jobs through the creation of a good rail passenger system throughout the nation. For every $1 billion invested, such a program could create 47,000 good-paying, middle class jobs.”

BLET National President Dennis Pierce thanked Brother Tolman for expertly and professionally representing the Brotherhood. A copy of Tolman’s testimony can be viewed at the BLET National Division website:

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