Budget Cuts for High Speed and Passenger Rail Service
In the wee hours of the morning, on April 12, in a budget deal made between Senate and House leaders, all new funding for FY 2011 for the high-speed and intercity passenger rail program was eliminated. The final bill also reaches back and rescinds $400 million of funding appropriated for that program in FY 2010. This means that the Department of Transportation will not be able to reallocate the funds that were turned down by Floridafor the high speed rail project in that state. In addition, Amtrak capital and debt service grants were cut by $80 million below the FY 2010 level. The Congressional leaders who took high-speed rail out of the 2011 spending bill are not likely to put it back in to the six-year transportation reauthorization bill.
Vice President Bruno Testifies before U.S. House of Representatives
On April 7, BLET National Vice President and Interim Director of Regulatory Affairs Stephen Bruno was one of 19 witnesses who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials at a hearing titled, “Railroad and Hazardous Materials Transportation Programs: Reforms and Improvements to Reduce Regulatory Burdens.”
The purpose of the hearing was to find ways to reduce regulatory “burdens” in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization measure that will include policy reforms for improving rail and hazardous materials transportation. Chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), stated that their intention was to ensure that “the federal government does not get in the way of safe, effective transportation and commerce in the United States.” Is that another way of saying that they are looking out for their friends, the railroads, to make sure that these regulations do not get in the way of their profit margin even at the expense of the safety of rail employees and the public?
In his testimony, Vice President Bruno outlined the BLET’s position on several issues and explained that the BLET strongly believes that the best regulations are crafted with the input of those with a stake in the rules and should not unilaterally be changed by Congress at the behest of the railroads.
Vice President Bruno also pointed out the “hypocrisy” of the railroad’s position on positive train technology, stating: “PTC is a safety overlay that will significantly reduce human factor related accidents and prevent loss of life. The railroads’ suggestion that they will implement other alternative safety practices and devices which will provide an equivalent level of safety is a disingenuous statement. These technologies have been available for decades and they are now only proposing to install them to avoid the PTC mandate. If the PTC mandate is removed, the railroads’ incentive to install these alternatives is likewise removed.”
He also cautioned against the privatization of Amtrak, saying that “Congress can best ensure the public good by maintaining Amtrak as our nation’s passenger rail service provider.”
And finally, Bruno urged the subcommittee to consider taking up the BLET’s technical corrections to the hours of service portion of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
Railroad Retirement Under Attack?
As mentioned in the Legislative Update that appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of BLET Auxiliary News, the provision of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 that reduced the employee Social Security tax rate from 6.2% to 4.2% for 2011 earnings subject to such tax, also affects Railroad Retirement Tier 1 taxes, which are based on Social Security. The new tax tables went into effect in February of 2011. This has caused some to spread falsehoods with regard to Railroad Retirement and the Social Security Administration. They would like the American public to believe that the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) is costing taxpayers additional money and that it should be eliminated because Social Security already performs this work. In truth, the RRB is not funded by general taxpayer dollars nor does it add to the U.S.fiscal deficit. Railroad Retirement benefits and the operation of the RRB are paid with taxes from railroad employees and the railroads that employ them. Railroad payroll taxes are transferred from the RRB to the Social Security Administration and the Tier 1 benefit dollars (equivalent to Social Security benefits) are separated out for the RRB to pay to their annuitants. Other Tier 1 benefits above and beyond this are paid entirely out of the Railroad Retirement Trust Fund, which is maintained exclusively by the railroads and their employees through payroll taxes. If the Railroad Trust Fund should face a shortfall, the onus is on the railroad carriers to raise their taxes, not the employees, and definitely not the American taxpayers. Tier II benefits are fully funded by additional payroll taxes paid solely by railroads and their employees.
We must all stay alert with regard to this issue in order to protect our Railroad Retirement Fund and its board from unsubstantiated attacks and efforts to destroy Railroad Retirement and Social Security.
In closing, I would like to remind all railroad crew members to PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONES when you go to work. Spouses, please do what you can to encourage this, for the safety and security of railroad employees, their families, and the general public. We got along for many years without the use of this technology and surely we can manage to do without it for those hours when our loved ones are out there working. If there is a true emergency in which you need to reach your spouse immediately, you can contact him or her through the railroad via the dispatcher. If this is a concern, please ask your spouse to provide you with the appropriate information on how to do this.