Legislative Update September 2010

MOBILIZATION AT WORK FOR AMTRAK!

Many thanks to all of you who called your Members of Congress in late July to request that they refuse to support an amendment that would have removed over $1 billion in operating capital from the amount included for Amtrak in the 2011 Transportation-HUD Appropriations Bill, H.R. 5850. Other connected amendments introduced by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN) would have prohibited any funds from being used to subsidize sleeper class service on any long-distance Amtrak routes; targeted funding for loan and debt repayment, which would eventually dismantle and destroy major train routes; and reduced Amtrak’s operating grants by $120 million. The amendments were combined into one specific amendment introduced by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), which was defeated 129-293 in a late night session of the House of Representatives on July 29. This was a great demonstration of our mobilization networks (both the BLET and BLET Auxiliary) in action!

For a complete list of those 129 representatives who voted in favor the amendment, go to: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2010/roll494.xml. You might want to be aware of who they are and how they stand on these important issues should they ask for your support in the near future.

FAMILY MEDICAL LEAVE ACT

 

On August 8, I sent a legislative alert to all on my e-mail list regarding a proposed amendment to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). House Resolution 5944. This measure was introduced in the House of Representatives on July 29 to amend the Family and Medical Leave Act to clarify eligibility requirements for railroad workers. The FMLA currently does not address the unique working conditions of railroad operating employees. Rail workers may not always meet the minimum criteria of 1,250 hours worked in the previous 12-month period prior to applying for leave, as set forth in the current FMLA regulations. Under the proposed changes to the FMLA, the time that railroad operating crews are required to be available for work will be included in the total hours worked per year, thus making them more likely to meet the FMLA eligibility criteria.

BLET Vice President and National Legislative Representative John Tolman is asking for information about any BLET members who have been denied FMLA leave for the reason mentioned above. Please either send any information you may have directly to the BLET Legislative Office in Washington, D.C., by e-mail at tolman@ble-t.org or by regular mail to Mr. Tolman at the National Legislative Office, 25 Louisiana Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.

Many thanks to those of you have already responded to this request and provided us with your personal experiences regarding the denial of FMLA due to the lack of hours actually worked in order to qualify. These personal accounts will help the BLET Legislative Department build its case in favor of the passage of this amendment.

HIGH SPEED RAIL

 

FRA Funding Applications:

As part of the implementation of the National Rail Plan, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has received 77 applications from 25 states, totaling more than $8.5 billion, for the most recent round of High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) grant funding. The application requests will be considered for funding from the more than $2.3 billion appropriated in FY 2010. Twenty applications from 10 states, totaling 7.8 billion for high-speed rail corridor development, were also received by the FRA, as well as 57 applications from 18 states, totaling $700 million for smaller, individual projects within rail corridors that are ready to begin construction. The Department will evaluate the applications to identify which projects will deliver the greatest public benefits and yield the highest return on their investment.

Total funding for the HSIPR program comes from:

  • American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009: $8 billion
  • FY 2009 appropriations and remaining funds from a related FY 2008 appropriations funded program:  $95 million
  • FY 2010 appropriations: $2.125 billion (HSIPR service development projects), 245 million (HSIPR individual projects), and $50 million (HSIPR planning and multi-state proposal activities)

So far, the FRA has awarded more than $583 million to states for HSIPR.

We must stay vigilant as the National Rail Plan is implemented to ensure that Amtrak plays the central role in the delivery of the rail passenger services envisioned under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and that the recipients of the grants issued under the plan will further ensure that those who build, maintain, and operate these railways are covered under the Railway Labor Act and the Railroad Retirement Act, and that the “Buy America” requirements are applied and enforced consistent with the law.

High Speed Rail Under Attack in Wisconsin

Not everyone is in favor of the high-speed rail projects. Scott Walker, the opposition candidate for Governor in Wisconsin has launched a major attack against passenger rail expansion in that state. Wisconsin was awarded Recovery Act funds to extend the Amtrak Hiawatha from Milwaukee to Madison, and Walker has promised to stop construction if he is elected. He even has a special website for his anti-train rally; however, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has set up an action page for Wisconsin residents to show their support of the rail expansion project at http://www.midwesthsr.org/Wisconsin. If you live in Wisconsin, please sign on and send the gubernatorial candidates a message asking them to support high speed passenger rail.

Uniform Technical Standards for High-Speed Rail Cars

As required by the Passenger Railroad Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, a team of experts from the FRA, Amtrak, and state Departments of Transportation, has released the first-ever uniform technical standards for the manufacture of high-speed intercity passenger rail cars. This development will enhance the ability of U.S. manufacturers to more effectively compete in what is expected to rapidly become a promising new industry.

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Thank you David Cameron, Assistant to the Director of the Teamsters Rail Conference, for helping to keep us all informed about the progress and pitfalls with the high speed rail initiative in this country.

 

ZAP THE CAP: RAILROAD LIABILITY CAP AND METROLINK ACCIDENT

In 1997, Congress passed the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act  (P.L. 105-134), which established a $200 million liability cap for damage payouts to train crash victims. Last month, the Metrolink system and its former contractor ConnexRailroad filed court papers accepting the maximum $200 million in liability for the train crash that killed 25 people and injured more than 150 others, many seriously, in September 2008 in Chatsworth, California. Representative Elton Gallegly (R-CA) has stated that $200 million is not enough to cover the losses and medical expenses of all the victims. A federal judge is expected to rule on the settlement in October.

Jeromy Ringler, a lead attorney for the victims, stated that the cap is being tested by the magnitude of the crash and the damages far exceed $200 million. Challenging the constitutional grounds of the cap in court, however, would be difficult and he feels that legislative action would be a more expedient remedy.

Rep. Gallegly, who stated that the law can be changed retroactively in civil cases, has conferred with California Senator Dianne Feinstein and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, urging them to form bipartisan support before introducing a bill before Congress this month to amend the Transportation Reauthorization Bill to clarify the law’s original intent and exclude non-governmental entities from the liability cap.

A “Dear Colleague” letter from California Representative Grace Napolitano to Chairman Obertstar is currently circulating on Capitol Hill. The letter addresses removing the liability cap for non-governmental rail carriers who have private insurance that would cover such catastrophic accidents. The Auxiliary has been asked to contact our Congressional representatives the week of September 6, asking them to sign on to the “Dear Colleague” letter. Once the Chairman determines the best vehicle (bill) onto which to attach this amendment for moving through the House, we will advise our members.

ATTENTION MEDICARE SUBSCRIBERS!

 

Beware of fraudulent e-mail alerts:  Many false and intentionally misleading e-mails are being circulated throughout the senior networks, making false claims on the taxation of health care benefits. A provision in the health care reform law requires that W-2 forms will now have a category (box) into which employers must put the value of the worker’s or retiree’s health care. It will not be considered taxable income. These fraudulent e-mails started circulating at the end of the health care debate and most likely will continue until the fall elections are over, and then start up again.

Medicare Part D Subscribers: If you or someone you know is covered under Medicare’s Part D Drug Plan, you do not have to do anything to receive the $250 rebate check if you reach the gap (or doughnut hole) in prescription drug coverage costs. Many scams are being perpetrated on unsuspecting seniors by asking for personal information such Social Security or Medicare numbers… be aware!

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Many thanks to the National Associatioan of Retired and Veteran Railway Employees, Inc., (NARVRE), and particularly to their National Legislative Director Gary Faley, for helping to keep us informed as to issues that affect Railroad Retirement and Medicare.