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Posts from the "Nick Rahall" Category

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UPDATE: Reminder: Amtrak Subsidies Pale in Comparison to Highway Subsidies

UPDATED 9/24 with chart.

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica continued his “holy jihad” against Amtrak yesterday, holding the third full-committee hearing in a series on “Reviewing Amtrak’s Operations.” He’s planning at least three more hearings during the lame duck session after the election.

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica is on a "holy jihad" to curb Amtrak's subsidies. Image: C-SPAN

Mica went after subsidies in this one, and he clearly thinks this is a winning issue. After all, Amtrak has gotten nearly $1 billion a year in federal funds over its 41-year existence. The per-ticket subsidy over the past five years has averaged nearly $51. Mica compared that to other forms of transportation: Using 2008 data, he showed that the average per-ticket subsidy to aviation was $4.28, for mass transit was 95 cents, and for intercity commercial bus service 10 cents.

What’s missing? Highways, of course. Luckily, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman was on hand to remind him. “In the past four years, the federal government has appropriated $53.3 billion from the general fund of the Treasury to bail out the Highway Trust Fund,” Boardman told the committee. “That’s almost 30 percent more than the total federal expenditure on Amtrak since 1971.”

Considering that about 20 percent of the Highway Trust Fund goes to transit, that’s still more for highways alone over the past four years than Amtrak has ever gotten.

Meanwhile, Amtrak affirmed this week that the rail line covers 85 percent of its operating costs with ticket sales and other revenues [PDF].

Mica did acknowledge in his opening remarks that “almost all forms of transportation are underwritten by subsidies” but didn’t mention roads, despite the massive subsidies road builders receive.

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Is the House Democrats’ New “Buy America” Jobs Bill Just a Political Ploy?

With no movement on a highway bill from House T&I Chairman John Mica until after Congress reconvenes in January, Ranking Member Nick Rahall held a press conference today to introduce the “Invest in American Jobs Act of 2011” [PDF]. The act would strengthen the “Buy America” requirements already in place on transit, rail, highway, bridge, and aviation programs.

This streetcar was made in Oregon, but will transit suffer under a Democratic mandate to buy all components stateside? Photo: Seattle Transit Blog

Among the bill’s stipulations:

  • 100 percent of components and subcomponents of transit rolling stock must be made in the US by fiscal year 2016 (currently a 60 percent requirement, to be raised incrementally)
  • Amtrak would lose its exemption from Buy America on projects under $1 million
  • Any exemptions to Buy America sought will be subject to a period of public comment and must be reported to the Secretary of Transportation

It also seeks to eliminate loopholes for segmented or subcontracted projects like the east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Rahall specifically cited the bridge, the largest public works project in California’s history, as having been built using 43,000 tons of Chinese steel—“Made in China, but paid for by American taxpayers.”

The bill is the latest in a growing list of job-creation proposals and counter-proposals to come from either the President or Congress. And like those prior proposals, this one is unlikely to go very far.

Think of it as the Democrats’ answer to “drilling-for-infrastructure” (maybe “regulation-for-protectionism”?). While representatives from the AFL-CIO, United Steel Workers, and United Streetcar threw their support behind the bill at the announcement, a Republican House pushing to de-regulate everything will be unlikely to get behind a Democratic proposal to create additional regulatory burdens – and costs – for industry.

Indeed, it’s easy to read the bill as a mere political maneuver. Rather than letting the Republicans claim credit for introducing a transportation bill they’re overtly touting as a jobs-creator — and then letting them blame Democrats for refusing to pass it — the Democrats are trying to get out in front with their own unpassable jobs-and-transportation bill.

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New GAO Report: All States are “Donees” When it Comes to Highways

This chart shows the amount of Federal-Aid Highway money given to each state per dollar contributed to the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund for fiscal years 2005-2009. Image: GAO

You’ve probably heard some grumbling or chuckling — depending on where you live — about the way federal highway funds are distributed to states.

And it’s true that for quite some time, the country was divided into “donor” and “donee” states, each group either contributing more revenue than they received from the Federal-Aid Highway Program or vice versa.

But that is no longer the case, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. Between 2005 and 2009 every state in the union received more Federal-Aid Highway dollars than it contributed through fuel taxes and other fees.

But while that might sound great, the truth is it’s bad news no matter where you live. This was only possible because the roughly $200 billion in Federal-Aid spending over that time period included $30 billion from the general fund — a trend that presents some rather obvious sustainability concerns, to say nothing of equity for non-drivers.

“A significant amount of highway funding is no longer provided by highway users,” GOA stated in the report.

Discrepancies in “rate-of-return” were also mitigated by the 2005 SAFETEA-LU which offered an “equity bonus” to donor states. The program guaranteed a minimum return to states, resulting in a higher rate-of-return for all states, and as much as a 25 percent increase for some.

That doesn’t mean funding discrepancies have been eliminated, as the map above illustrates.

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CRS: Northeast Corridor Privatization Plan Violates Constitution

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has examined the question of whether the GOP plan to privatize Amtrak’s most valuable corridor is constitutional – and it’s determined that it is not.

Warning: this is about to get a little wonky. But I figure if Streetsblog readers can get all nerdy on transit, you can probably geek out on legalese every once in a while too.

CRS looked at two constitutional provisions and found that the GOP plan violates them both.

First: the Takings Clause [PDF]. The government is allowed to take private property for public use, as long as the owner is justly compensated. The bill proposes to transfer the corridor and rolling stock from Amtrak to the USDOT.

According to CRS, this poses three constitutional questions:

  • Is Amtrak an entity outside the government? (It’s not a “taking” if property is transferred to different agencies within the government.) On this question, CRS says that the federal statute creating Amtrak unequivocally stated that it “is not a department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States Government.” The courts have upheld this definition.
  • Do the assets to be transferred constitute “property” under the Takings Clause? CRS says they are “classic, well-established forms of Taking Clause property.”
  • Is the transfer of assets from Amtrak to USDOT a taking? Indeed, it’s a “paradigmatic” taking, according to CRS. The only way for the term not to apply is if the transfer were somehow deemed non-coercive, since the draft bill contains no mechanism for enforcement. Still, CRS concludes that the “not-truly-coercive argument seems unlikely to succeed.”

OK, so it’s a taking. That’s fine – as we said, the constitution allows takings – as long as they’re justly compensated and for the public use. Whatever you think of the plan to privatize Amtrak, apparently just about anything Congress decides to do satisfies the “public use” clause. But the question of compensation is thornier.

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Mica Accedes to Dems’ Request to Delay Action on Rail Privatization

Rural Amtrak service could be a sticking point as Mica tries to win over members of his own party to his privatization plan. Photo: TrainWeb

John Mica has blinked.

Rather than go full steam ahead with his fast-track plan to introduce his bill to privatize the Northeast Corridor today and to have the committee discuss it and vote on it tomorrow, Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has agreed to delay action to allow time for a full legislative hearing. Democrats on the committee had asked Mica for the chance to get a full look at the proposal and voice their concerns.

The hearing is scheduled for tomorrow. The committee has not yet announced who will be appearing as witnesses. We’ll bring you a report after the hearing.

Rahall is pleased with the change in timing. “I would like to thank Chairman Mica for agreeing to Democrats’ request to hold a hearing on this bill before marking it up so that all Members could have an opportunity to better understand its sweeping ramifications,” he said in a statement.

But other Amtrak advocates on the Hill say it’s just delaying the inevitable. And it’s not just Democrats that are critical of the plan to take the Northeast Corridor away from Amtrak and let private companies run and operate the line. There are rumors that Mica’s gotten some grief from members of his own party over the plan.

After all, no one questions that the underlying motive of the privatization plan is to dismantle Amtrak, a company Mica has long derided as a “Soviet-style” money pit.And many rural areas – often represented by Republican lawmakers – depend on Amtrak service as an essential transportation connection and a focal point of their towns. It’s no wonder the representatives of those towns are nervous about the proposal.

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Rahall, Brown Say Dems Must Be Consulted on Rail Privatization

The top Democrats with jurisdiction over rail in the House are asking for a little old-time bipartisan cooperation in the Transportation Committee. They’re complaining that Republicans have shut them out of the process on one of the most important, game-changing proposals to come down the pike in a while: taking the Northeast Corridor away from Amtrak and putting it in private hands.

Not so fast, Republicans. Rahall wants some bipartisan input on rail privatization. Photo: Red Dog Report

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, and Rep. Corinne Brown (D-FL), ranking member on the Subcommittee on Railroads, sent a letter [PDF] requesting that the committee hold a full legislative hearing on the bill. Rahall yesterday called the proposal a “death knell for passenger rail.”

The letter says:

This legislation, which you state makes sweeping changes to the national passenger rail system, has not been shared with Democratic Members or staff; we have not been briefed on the proposal; and it is not yet available for public review. We believe there should be an opportunity to have a formal discussion on this legislation that would allow all interested and affected parties to participate before moving it through the Committee process.

The text of the draft bill has since been made available on the T&I committee website [PDF], as well as a section-by-section analysis [PDF], although there is no guarantee that the language in the draft is the language that will be in the final bill. The committee held a briefing yesterday for the public, but there was no chance for other lawmakers to comment, ask questions, or invite witnesses, as they would in a hearing. The next time the committee is scheduled to consider the legislation is next Wednesday – the day after the final bill is introduced – when the committee will vote on it.

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“Path to Prosperity” or “Road to Ruin”? Either Way, the House Says Yes

By a vote of 235 to 193, the House approved the GOP budget proposal for 2012, which cuts $6.2 trillion more from the budget over 10 years than President Obama’s proposal. A big portion of that bite comes out of transportation. Compared to Obama’s plan, it spends $633 billion less for transportation.

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan. Photo: WSJ

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) calls the proposal “The Path to Prosperity” but Democrats have been deriding it as “The Road to Ruin.” House Transportation Committee Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV) says it would destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs.

It makes Big Oil smile from ear to ear knowing that they can exploit $40 billion in tax loopholes, yet the Budget completely neglects millions of American potholes.

He said that according to the CBO numbers, the current funding for transportation form the Highway Trust Fund is $316 billion, with another $15 billion from the general fund. The Republican budget would cut that amount by nearly a third, providing only $219 billion of Highway Trust Fund funding over the next six years.

Rahall couldn’t help but mention that China spends nine percent of its GDP per year on infrastructure and India spends five percent.

Yet, the United States of America only spends 1.9 percent of its GDP per year on infrastructure. Woefully inadequate as it stands. Yet, the Republican Budget cuts highway, highway safety, and transit investment by about one-third: one-third less bridge repair, one-third less safety improvement, and one-third less bus service is where this Budget leads us – destroying family-wage highway and transit construction jobs all along the way. And placing us in an even less competitive position than we already are against countries like China and India. Incredible. Simply incredible.

U.S. PIRG’s federal transportation associate, Dan Smith, said high gas prices, high unemployment, and serious traffic congestion make this budget the wrong solution.

Chairman Ryan claims to only consolidate ‘duplicative’ funding, but aggressively cuts vital programs. Just because funding for a $50 million bridge repair project is divided between two programs does not mean that combining the programs will get the same bridge fixed for $25 million. As Budget Committee chair, Representative Ryan should know that one plus one still equals two.

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Mica Touts Public-Private Northeast Corridor HSR In Grand Central Hearing

The House transportation committee meeting on the balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Photo: __

The House transportation committee meeting on the balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Sitting beneath the famous zodiac mural of Grand Central’s main concourse, with the rumble of commuters and trains in the background, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first field hearing of the new session this morning. The topic was the future of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor.

Chairman John Mica led the committee’s Republicans towards what appears to be their emerging message on high-speed rail: they’re for it, so long as it’s built through public-private partnerships and largely limited to the dense Boston-Washington corridor.

High-speed rail advocates and some Democrats seem to think the re-prioritization of the Northeast Corridor could be a good thing, though other Democrats remain committed to the Obama administration vision of a nationwide network. Disagreements over the proper roles of the public and private sectors, however, were somewhat more partisan and contentious.

The call to prioritize the Northeast Corridor — and therefore to stop spreading high speed rail dollars across the nation — earned support from across the political spectrum in the hearing, perhaps not surprising given the heavy representation of northeastern representatives.

Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who chairs the Railroads Subcommittee, called himself a strong rail supporter but attacked the Obama administration’s strategy so far. “There’s no better way to move large numbers of people than passenger rail and high-speed rail,” he said, telling the story of how improved service on Pennsylvania’s Keystone corridor had convinced him to ride the rails instead of driving. But, he continued, Obama “took that stimulus money and spread it too thinly across the nation.” He said that the President’s State of the Union promise to bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of Americans by 2036 was simply unrealistic and that starting on the Northeast Corridor would be smarter.

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House Transpo Committee Promises Bipartisanship, To Tackle Aviation First

Ranking Member Nick Rahall presents Chairman John Mica with a new gavel to run the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Ranking Member Nick Rahall presents Chairman John Mica with a new gavel to run the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Meet the new House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The committee’s meeting this morning, the first of the 112th Congress, included twenty new Republican faces, 19 of whom are freshman representatives. The mostly administrative agenda didn’t offer many chances for the committee members to talk policy, but even some of the freshmen’s short introductions proved potentially revealing.

Chair John Mica and Ranking Member Nick Rahall each forcefully restated his commitment to keeping the committee running on bipartisan terms. “This has been one of the most bipartisan committees and it will continue to be,” said Mica. In a rhetorical reach across the aisle, Mica also used the president’s State of the Union call to invest in transportation as a springboard for his own remarks.

“There’s no Republican bridges, there’s no Democratic bridges, there’s only American bridges,” said Rahall. He urged committee members to “stand together, even against party leadership if necessary,” to keep partisanship out of their work. He even serenaded Mica with a one-day-early rendition of Happy Birthday.

More importantly, both Mica and Rahall agreed on a proposed schedule for the committee: as previously reported, aviation reauthorization will come before the surface transportation bill.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the surface transportation bill is being abandoned. “We’re going to get the darn thing done,” promised Mica. He also announced that the committee will take a listening tour across the country in mid-February to gather ideas from across the country. “I’m going to be as flexible as a Barbie doll,” said Mica.

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Rahall Responds, Says His Transpo Record Is About More Than Just Highways

Earlier this month, we reported that Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) was in the running for Ranking Member on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in the House. We mentioned our alarm that his ideas about transportation seemed limited and road-centric – specifically, that his website’s issue page on Transportation mentioned only highways, water, and broadband. Got us wondering what he thought about bike-ped access and transit.

The Greenbrier River Trail, the longest rail-trail in West Virginia. Looks beautiful, but we're guessing it's not a high-traffic commuter corridor. Photo by ##http://www.wunderground.com/blog/HeyBoyHowdy/comment.html?entrynum=11##shbknits##

The Greenbrier River Trail, the longest rail-trail in West Virginia. Looks beautiful, but we're guessing it's not a high-traffic commuter corridor. Photo by shbknits

We were glad to see today that reporter Taylor Kuykendall from the local Register-Herald newspaper asked Rahall about those omissions.

Rahall said he understands those concerns, and admits they aren’t featured prominently on his website, but that doesn’t mean he ignores those issues.

“I don’t give them much play on my website, because while important, they don’t play as prominent a role in the way we move our coal, our goods and our people,” Rahall said. “We don’t benefit as much in West Virginia from all of those categories, but we do have some. Rails-to-trails, for example, and we have bikeways and scenic byways. We have several of those right here in southern West Virginia.”

Now, I like a scenic byway as much as the next lady, but it’s not quite the trailblazing reform that advocates were looking for.

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