News

DOT chief: ‘America needs passenger rail’

2/19/15

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday that federal funding for long-distance railways and intracity public transit systems should be increased because “passenger rail is an important piece of our transportation puzzle.”

Foxx said in a blog post increased funding for railways is necessary to making sure that U.S. transportation can keep up with the nation’s expected population growth.

“America is growing. But our roads, rails, and runways don’t automatically grow with our population,” he wrote after visiting the site of a proposed rail depot known as Gateway Station in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C.

“We’re expecting 70 million more people over the next 30 years and a 45 percent spike in freight volume. The question is, ‘How are we going to move all of this freight, and all of these folks,’” Foxx continued. “Well, it turns out, the American people are voting on this question with their train tickets. Amtrak has broken ridership records in 10 out of the past 11 years. The train service that runs between Charlotte and Raleigh carries 100,000 more riders today than it did only five years ago.”

Foxx is in the middle of a weeklong tour of states from Florida to Virginia pushing for an Obama administration proposal for spending nearly $80 billion per year on road and transit projects over the next six years. The figure is a large increase over the approximately $50 billion per year that is currently being spent by the federal government on infrastructure.

Lawmakers have begun considering a new transportation bill with the current measure set to expire in May. They have struggled to come up with a way to pay for the infrastructure spending beyond revenue that is collected from the federal gas tax, however, which is at 18.4 cents per gallon.

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The Daily Iowan: Iowa closer to passenger rail to Chicago

12/23/14

Passenger railroads are one step closer to a reality for people wanting to travel from Iowa City to Chicago, but possible construction remains in the distant future.

Last week, the Federal Rail Administration agreed to allow the Iowa Department of Transportation to begin preliminary engineering work and follow-up environmental assessment on the planned Amtrak route between Iowa City and Chicago.

“Ideally, the next phase is preliminary engineering, which will not give a final design but will get us to about 30 percent [of the funding] to understand engineering requirements and eventually go to final design and construction,” said Amanda Martin, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s freight and passenger policy coordinator.

She said the project would still need significantly more federal and/or state funding to further progress.

The Federal Rail Administration planned an 80 percent federal and 20 percent state and local funding split.  Of the roughly $72 million estimated to complete Phase 2, this week’s agreement only approves $53 million in funding.

“The next phase will get us to about mid-2016, where we will be staged to move forward with additional phases,” Martin said.  “We’re just doing this piece now, but after 2016, it’s all to be determined.”

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maqouketa, the head of the Transportation Committee, said until the state has specific funds designated to the project, construction is probably in the distant future.

He said he remains optimistic about the future of passenger rail to eventually go from Chicago across the state.

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Farmington Independent: Farmington supports passenger rail study

12/23/14

There was a time when passenger rail service transported people from communities south of the metro to and from the Twin Cities. There’s a group of folks interested in restoring that old line, and the city councils in Farmington and Rosemount have at least enough interest to throw their support behind a study.

The Farmington City Council agreed Monday to send a letter to the Minnesota Department of Transportation requesting the department include the South Central Inter-City passenger rail study in the updated state rail plan with a tier-one priority status. The Rosemount City Council approved a similar resolution during its Dec. 16 meeting.

Farmington city administrator David McKnight estimated that passenger rail service last passed through Farmington in the early 1960s.

Existing tracks link Minneapolis and St. Paul to Northfield and possibly even Faribault, Owatonna and Albert Lea. Rosemount city administrator Dwight Johnson said the study will determine if it is feasible to use existing technology and rail lines to restore the service through the region.

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Washington Post: Court considers whether Amtrak’s self-created standards are federal ‘regulations’

12/9/14

The Supreme Court debated Monday whether Amtrak has the authority to write the standards under which it should be judged.

The government created the for-profit corporation in 1970 and in 2008 told it to work with government agencies to develop “metrics and standards” to better judge its performance in providing passenger rail service.

The rub is that Amtrak runs on freight train rails, and the new standards gave Amtrak a tool with which to force freight railroads to delay their own traffic to benefit Amtrak’s on-time performance.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with the freight industry that the 2008 law was unconstitutional because Congress cannot give a private company the right to develop regulations.

That was the backdrop for a rather dense hour-long argument at the Supreme Court, where justices expressed varying degrees of unease with the situation. But it was not clear whether any five of the nine had the same concerns.

Assistant Deputy Solicitor General Curtis E. Gannon, representing the federal government and Amtrak, said the lower court was wrong that Amtrak should be considered a private entity and that the standards were regulations.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to disagree. He noted that if Amtrak fell short of the standards, it could initiate an investigation by the Surface Transportation Board to see whether a lack of cooperation from the freight industry was the cause.

“That’s a significant regulatory impact — to tell railroads I, a private party, get to start a governmental proceeding and you have to show up to defend it,” Roberts said. He noted that after the appeals court struck down the standards, Amtrak’s performance dropped “dramatically.”

“Seems kind of regulatory,” Justice Elena Kagan agreed.

But she pressed Washington lawyer Thomas H. Dupree Jr., representing the Association of American Railroads, about his claim that Congress could not delegate authority to Amtrak because it is a private interest.

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Globe and Mail: CP, Wisconsin in dispute over high-speed rail project

12/9/14

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. is caught up in the fallout from a political battle in Wisconsin over the building of a high-speed rail line.

The Calgary-based North American rail freight giant is making its case to a Wisconsin state arbitrator that it is owed more than $500,000 (U.S.) for planning work it did on a high-speed-rail project that was cancelled when a Republican politician opposed to it won the governorship in 2010.

CP, through its Soo Line Railroad Co. subsidiary, owns the right-of-way to several rail lines in the proposed corridor that would have required upgrading to accommodate high-speed passenger trains.

CP contends in its claim it “expended substantial resources” to help the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in 2009 and 2010 obtain an $810-million grant from the federal government in a rushed fashion before the 2010 election.

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E&E: Justices seem to favor DOT in Amtrak-freight dispute

12/8/14

A majority on the Supreme Court appeared to support the Obama administration’s contention that Congress didn’t delegate too much authority to Amtrak for drafting standards that apply to the entire rail industry.

At issue in Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads are standards for on-time performance and other metrics issued by DOT in 2010 after “jointly” developing them with Amtrak. The freight rail industry claims the standards were too favorable to Amtrak, which operates most of its routes on tracks owned by freight companies. Amtrak and freight operators compete for limited capacity — a tension dating to Congress’ creation of Amtrak in 1970 (Greenwire, Oct. 31)

The freight companies sued, challenging a provision of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which aimed to address Amtrak’s struggles with on-time performance by cutting delays caused by freight traffic.

The law, they said, granted Amtrak too much leverage to negotiate standards that would apply to the entire industry.

A federal appeals court agreed, ruling in July 2013 that the law delegated too much authority to Amtrak — which is supposed to be run as a for-profit entity (Greenwire, July 2, 2013).

Most of the justices today appeared unwilling to rule for the first time in 80 years that Congress had violated the “non delegation doctrine,” which prohibits giving lawmaking authority to a private entity.

Curtis Gannon, an assistant to the solicitor general, argued that Amtrak alone didn’t issue the standards; federal agencies did after overseeing the entire process.

“The federal government’s fingerprints” are all over the standards, he said. He further contended that the metrics were not, in fact, regulations.

That seemed to gain traction with Justice Elena Kagan and other liberal members of the court.

There is “no place where a private actor can do something itself under this scheme,” Kagan said.

Justice Stephen Breyer, moreover, appeared concerned about the ramifications of the court ruling against the standards.

There are thousands of groups that set standards that apply to various industries, he said, such as those that set performance standards for Internet providers.

Breyer called the case a “wild goose chase” and said that “once we start down that road, there is no stopping point.”

Aside from the delegation issue, however, there were other significant concerns about the standards.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia zeroed in on an arbitrator provision that granted Amtrak the authority to force the government to hire an independent arbitrator if the two sides could not come to agreement. The arbitrator’s decision would then have the full force of the government.

Scalia indicated that provision would violate the due process rights of other participants in the marketplace — such as freight operators.

The arbitrator, Scalia said, is “supervised by nobody” and would be setting government policy.

Thomas Dupree of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, representing the freight companies, agreed, arguing that the provision “gave Amtrak the pen.”

The case also gave the justices the opportunity to delve into the murky issue of whether Amtrak is private or public.

Despite Dupree’s arguments that it is a private actor in the marketplace, Kagan and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed unwilling to budge.

“What about Amtrak is not governmental, other than the label?” Kagan asked.

A ruling in the case is due by June 30.

WLFI: Negotiations continue with Amtrak for Hoosier State Line

11/12/14

INDIANAPOLIS (WLFI) – There’s a new twist in negotiations to help keep the Hoosier State passenger rail line alive. The Indiana Department of Transportation is working to continue service with Amtrak — past the contract that currently expires in less than three months.

As News 18 has been reporting, federal funding for the Hoosier State line ran out last year. Several communities, including Lafayette, West Lafayette, and Tippecanoe County are helping fund the service.

The state has a contract with Amtrak which currently ends on Jan. 31. INDOT was in negotiations with Corridor Capital LLC for the line. But INDOT Spokesman Will Wingfield tells News 18 those negotiations have ended. Instead, he said INDOT is talking to Amtrak about operating the line into February and beyond.

“Here recently we’ve requested Amtrak’s pricing for them to continue operating the service minus the elements that they provide today, so on-board services and rolling stock, such as passenger cars, etc.” said Wingfield.

Corridor Capital LLC posted an article on its website, saying the company wasn’t aware of negotiations ending until recent news reports. Wingfield declined to go into detail as to why INDOT ended negotiations with the group.

Wingfield said INDOT hopes to have an agreement with Amtrak by that Jan. 31 deadline. He said INDOT is also in renewal negotiations with the different communities.

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Chugging Forward: Local passenger rail service on Minnesota’s planning radar

11/12/14

It’s been more than half a century since Eau Claire last saw passenger rail service. If the turnout at a Thursday evening hearing was any indication, there is strong interest in making sure another 50 years don’t pass before the trains run again.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people, from 20-somethings to seniors, attended a Minnesota Department of Transportation open house at Chippewa Valley Technical College to hear about the neighboring state’s passenger rail plan, which includes a potential line between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities. The desire for such a route was identified when Minnesota created its state rail plan in 2010. Now, the Minnesota DOT is preparing a five-year update of that document.

The rail line is envisioned as offering speeds up to 79 mph (and perhaps as high as 90 mph) between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities, with stops in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. The 2010 plan included four round trips a day on the route and estimated passenger demand of between 100,000 and 300,000 riders annually.

But making the route a reality will take collaboration, political will, and – most of all – money. “This is a bi-state project,” Praveena Pidaparthi, planning director of MinnDOT’s passenger rail office, told the gathering. “We cannot advance this project just based on MinnDOT findings. We need WisDOT’s cooperation too to advance this. And I think we need that grassroots initiative, which we already have” – in the form of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, one of the event’s sponsors. Furthermore, the project needs to reach the stage of planning where funding can be found within the two state budgets’ and from the federal government, Pidaparthi said.

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Quad Cities Dispatch-Argus: Moline passenger rail station plans get historic commission OK

11/12/14

MOLINE — The Moline Historic Preservation Commission on Monday approved preliminary plans for the exterior of the building that will hold The Q, the Quad-Cities passenger rail station.

Jeff Nelson, MetroLINK’s general manager, and Ted Houg, a design principal with Legat Architects, told commissioners work is well underway for the station planned on the first floor of a former warehouse on 12th Street and 4th Avenue in Moline.

The effort to bring passenger rail back to the Quad-Cities has been in the works for 25 years, Mr. Nelson said. Illinois is managing most of the rail improvements, with the launch date for service between Moline and Chicago “still fluid.”

“We have been assured there will be a day the first train rolls,” he said.

City officials have said rail service likely will begin in 2016, although Illinois Department of Transportation officials recently said they could not cite a target date or year. IDOT has begun rail line upgrades near Chicago, but has not said when work will start on a 55-mile stretch of rail between Wyanet and Moline.

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E&E: Federal rail chief steps down

11/12/14

Joe Szabo, the Federal Railroad Administration’s chief since 2009, is leaving in January to return to Illinois.

In an email this morning to the agency’s approximately 840 employees, Szabo said he has accepted a job as senior fellow for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, where he’ll work with elected officials, industry and organized labor on transportation planning and programming.

“It is a role that allows me to return to my roots in local government, to serve as a senior adviser on transportation policy, and — from Chicago — continue to advance the safe, efficient and reliable movement of people and goods for a strong America, just like we’ve done together here at FRA.”
Szabo has headed the railroad administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation, for almost all of the Obama administration, having won Senate confirmation for the post in April 2009. A former railroad worker who became vice president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Szabo also served as mayor of Riverdale, Ill., near Chicago.

Among accomplishments cited in today’s email, Szabo singled out the drop in work-related railroad employee deaths during his tenure, which he said fell from 26 in 2008 to five so far this year. He also highlighted FRA’s work to put California’s high-speed rail program “on a solid footing”; the launch of a comprehensive plan for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston; and improved ability by the agency and state governments to complete projects “on time and on budget.”

“Due to your good work, the pipeline of rail projects has never been stronger and states and regions are ready to execute as predictable, dedicated funding becomes available,” he told employees.

Today’s announcement comes about two months after the agency’s deputy administrator, Karen Hedlund, also stepped down. That post is currently vacant.

At the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based organization that supports expanded passenger train service, Federal Legislative Director Karen Torrent praised Szabo’s work on safety and as a “tireless advocate” for a national rail plan but expressed concern at the possibility that FRA will lack permanent top leadership at a time when both Amtrak and surface transportation programs are up for congressional reauthorization.

“You want to have those positions filled so they can be participating” in the reauthorization process, Torrent said.