LEGISLATIVE UPDATE – November-December 2016

By Kathleen Bisbikis, National 2nd Vice President, National Legislative Rep, BLET Auxiliary

Below are some of the most recent news items that affect all of us. Please feel free to share these with your local auxiliary. If you have information you would like to share with me for future updates, please send it to me at bletauxilliarylr@gmail.com.

The Days that Follow – 

The end has finally come to what has been described by some as the biggest division of our country since the civil war. Finally an end to debates that feel more like a reality TV show! Social media, with all of its promotion of the worst of each candidate, will hopefully calm down and people can go back to life as usual. Now is a time of adjustment to let the results sink in and figure out how to move forward under the new President and Republican-dominated Congress. It is a scary time for those of us who believe in the Union and want to see it prosper and grow. What about our hard-earned Railroad Retirement—will it still be there when we finally reach that milestone? Questions like this have to be weighing heavy, not just on my mind, but for all railroad families today. It’s hard to trust a President who wants to “Make America Great Again,” yet passes out election paraphernalia that is all made in other countries, who belittles women, makes excuses for not paying income tax, and treats his employees with no regard.

I hope that this election season we have not lost sight of the local political issues in our home state and counties. Making sure we all educated ourselves and did the homework to make the right decisions about the issues that will affect us most directly is important and should never be pushed aside just because there was a storming battle for the office of President playing in the background. Massive change can be accomplished right here in our communities through our involvement and good voting decisions.

Lastly, I hope that we all involved our children, regardless of age, in the importance of this election and explained to them the pros and cons of each candidate’s plan for America and how it would affect us directly as railroad families. I felt confident I had done my part in this regard when my son called to be picked up early from school so he could be home for all of the election coverage. I know I sound like a broken record, but the future of this country is literally in the hands of the children we are raising. It’s important that we take the time to educate them, involve them, and encourage them to participate, so they have a real understanding beyond what they hear at school. We must empower them to stand firm in their beliefs!

Increase in Railroad Retirement Benefits and retiree earning cap for 2017

A cost of living raise for retirees is planned to go into effect in January 2017. Retirees should expect to see an increase of approximately $6.00 a month, making the monthly benefit $2628. Couples should expect to see an increase of $9.00 per month, bringing their monthly income to $3815.

Additionally, in 2017 the limit a retiree can earn is rising. For those under full retirement age throughout 2017, the exempt earnings amount rises from $15,720 in 2016 to $16,920 for 2017. For beneficiaries attaining full retirement age in 2017, the exempt earnings amount, for the months before the month full retirement age is reached, rises from $41,880 in 2016, to $44,880 in 2017 .

For those under full retirement age, the earnings deduction is $1 in benefits for every $2 of earnings over the exempt amount. For those attaining full retirement age in 2017, the deduction is $1 for every $3 of earnings over the exempt amount in the months before the month full retirement age is attained.

Texas High-Speed Rail Lawsuit

It seems as though not everyone is excited about the possibility of high-speed rail in the state of Texas between the cities of Houston and Dallas. The Waller County Sub-Regional Planning Commission filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) earlier this month. The Waller County Planning Commission claimed that the TxDOT is in violation of a Texas state law that says, “In carrying out their planning and program development responsibilities, state agencies shall, to the greatest extent feasible, coordinate planning with commissions to ensure efficient and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level.” However, the TxDOT issued a response saying they have been ordered by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) not to “participate in any coordination meetings.”

“It is unfortunate it has come to this, but it became clear that the FRA, and now TxDOT, seem intent on keeping local governments such as Waller County and our municipalities completely out of the planning process. Without meaningful coordination, our community will suffer immediate and irreparable harm and that is totally unacceptable,” Waller County Judge and WCSRPC President Trey Duhon said.

The TxDOT is the lead state agency working on the high-speed rail project. However, it is working under the oversight of the FRA. Both agencies are preparing an environmental impact statement that will address all impacts the new high-speed rail would have on local communities.

BLET Endorses TSB’s stand on rail fatigue

BLET National President Dennis Pierce endorsed the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) decision to include rail worker fatigue on their 2016 Safety Watchlist.

TSB Chair Kathy Fox recently said rail worker fatigue had been a factor in numerous investigations, most notably in freight rail operations. “Too many train crews aren’t getting the rest they need, whether it’s shifts that are too long or irregular scheduling that interferes with normal sleep times,” Fox stated. “It’s time for the railway industry to start applying fatigue science to crew scheduling, instead of calling for more studies,” Fox said in a press release.

NTSB Announces 2017-2018 Most Wanted List:

The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) has announced its 2017-2018 list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements. Since 1990, the NTSB has issued, its “Most Wanted List” to bring awareness and change to preventable accidents in the fields of aviation, rail, highway, marine, and pipeline, as well as hazardous materials. This year the rail industry finds itself in 9 of the 10 areas brought to attention.

Areas listed that relate directly to both passenger and freight rail include: (1) the implementation of positive train control (PTC); (2) ensuring safe shipment of hazardous materials in addition to proper emergency response training; (3) safety monitoring of transit rail to prevent problems that could ultimately cost lives; (4) the reduction of fatigue-related accidents; (5) requirement of more stringent medical guidelines for “safety-critical personnel;” and (6) the elimination of distractions so that crews are focused on the operation of their trains.

The NTSB also announced this year that they would begin issuing the list every two years rather than annually, stating the “the change allows more time for the transportation industry, safety advocates, regulatory agencies, and individuals to effect the changes necessary to address the ten issues on the Most Wanted List.”

Brussels Attacks Prompt Increase in security for US rail stations

In March of this year, suicide bombers attacked a Brussels metro station and airport, killing 32 people and injuring 300. In September of this year, a pipe bomb was found near a rail station in New Jersey. These acts, in addition to other terrorist threats around the world, have prompted a bipartisan group of senators to introduce a bill that would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to increase security for surface transportation at both rail yards and ports around the US. The “Surface Transportation and Maritime Security Act” would bring to attention areas of concern in the TSA’s battle to protect rail, transit, highway, and maritime passengers, and freight transportation.

“TSA has broad responsibilities for transportation security, but oversight and independent audits have raised considerable concern about its approach to protecting rail, transit, maritime, and highway travelers,” said Senator John Thune (R-S.D.). “This bipartisan legislation addresses gaps in TSA’s approach to assessing security risks and will help the agency better fulfill its role as a hub of analysis, planning, and information.”

The bill would require the TSA to:

  • Immediately increase canine teams patrolling train stations and ports, as well as enhance screening of rail passengers and maritime workers;
  • conduct a risk analysis and implement a risk-based security model for surface transportation facilities;
  • submit budgets that clearly indicate which resources will be used for surface transportation security and which will be used for aviation; and
  • update Congress on the status of “long overdue” surface transportation rulemakings.