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Paul Ryan’s New Budget Seeks to “Murder” Amtrak

Just four months ago, the country was hailing a bipartisan budget deal negotiated by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray and her House counterpart, Paul Ryan. It was a respite from the deeply partisan posturing over spending that has gridlocked Washington for years. Even better, it was a two-year budget resolution, meaning it seemed the next fight would be a long way off.

Rep. Paul Ryan released an unnecessary budget proposal just to show off how badly he'd destroy transportation. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/5446900144/##Gage Skidmore/flickr##

Rep. Paul Ryan released an unnecessary budget proposal to show off his deficit hawk bona fides.
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Not long enough.

This week, Ryan unveiled a new “Path to Prosperity,” the title he puts on all of his attempts to starve the federal government.

Ryan didn’t have to release a budget this year, but as USA Today reports, “Republicans have long emphasized the importance of outlining the party’s philosophical priorities, even if [it] stands no chance of becoming law.” In an election year, Ryan appears eager to play up his deficit hawk bona fides and put his cooperative work with Democrats behind him.

No one could accuse Ryan of cozying up to Democrats this time around.

“This proposal takes a partisan jackhammer to our transportation infrastructure at a time when we need to be working together to find ways to rebuild it,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, in a statement. “This is budget déjà vu. Just like last year, this proposal is another road to ruin, not a ‘path to prosperity.’”

While this week’s budget plan technically fits within the broad outlines of December’s bipartisan agreement, the details Ryan fills in would never have been passed by the Senate or signed by Obama.

Ryan acknowledges that “efforts need to be made to find a long-term solution to the [highway] trust fund’s financial challenges,” and asserts that he places a priority on keeping it funded with user fees. But he has never supported a gas tax increase, and he doesn’t do so here. Instead, Ryan merely slashes spending — the same unimaginative and destructive plan Rep. John Mica had a few years ago that was booed off the stage.

According to Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, Ryan’s new plan would cut surface transportation funding by $172 billion over the next 10 years.

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Smaller Cities Propel Amtrak Ridership to a New High

Amtrak ridership has risen for 10 of the last 11 years. Image: Amtrak

It’s been another year of ridership growth for Amtrak, despite the difficulties caused by Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast. In fiscal year 2013, the nation’s intercity rail service saw its 10th ridership increase in 11 years, carrying a record 31.6 million passengers [PDF].

Amtrak's San Joaquin service saw a 6.6 percent jump in ridership in Fiscal Year 2013. Image: Modesto Bee

The Northeast Corridor still accounts for a huge share of Amtrak’s total ridership, with 11.4 million trips, but the ridership on that segment was down slightly from the previous year. The major growth was in routes serving smaller cities.

Ridership was up 4 percent in Michigan, where construction to improve the speed of connections between Detroit and Chicago is entering the final phases. St. Louis to Chicago boardings were up 9.7 percent, indicating riders are responding to new investments in that line as well. One segment of track was recently upgraded from 79 mph to 110 mph service, and by the end of 2015 up to 75 percent of the route will receive similar improvements, shaving an hour off the trip between the two cities.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvanian, serving Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, saw a 3.3 percent ridership jump. And service in the San Joaquin Valley saw 6.6 percent more passengers.

News of the ridership high coincided with the release of a new poll of eight midwestern Congressional districts, showing support for Amtrak is much stronger than beltway political squabbles would indicate. DFM Research of St. Paul, Minnesota, interviewed 3,000 randomly selected residents of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Kansas, and Iowa about their opinions on federal spending for the nation’s intercity passenger rail service, in a survey commissioned by SMART, a member union of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.

By more than a four-to-one margin, respondents said they support maintaining or increasing current federal spending levels to support Amtrak. Only about 17 percent of those interviewed supported eliminating funding for the service. Even 60 percent of self-identified Republicans said they supported maintaining or increasing funding compared to just 32 percent who preferred eliminating federal subsidies.

The survey and ridership data come as partisan gridlock and the government shutdown threaten to bring Amtrak service to a halt.

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As Deadline Approaches, Amtrak’s Indy-Chicago Line Faces Cuts

Notices may soon start appearing at train stations around the United States warning of possible service disruptions as states struggle to finalize funding agreements with Amtrak. All “state-supported” Amtrak routes — those shorter than 750 miles — are up against an October 16 deadline to come up with state funds to support passenger rail operations under the 2008 PRIIA law. So far, only seven out of 19 agreements in 15 states with state-supported lines have hammered out final agreements.

Amtrak service from Indianapolis to Chicago is threatened as a new law takes effect next month. Image: WIBC Indianapolis

Under Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, ”states will pay more, [though] they will not pay 100 percent,” said Amtrak spokesperson Steve Kulm. Amtrak will continue to pay roughly 13 percent for state-supported routes, he said, but the amount will vary by route.

Most states seem on track to reach an agreement with Amtrak in time, although some states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, are still negotiating and may reach out to the Federal Railroad Administration for arbitration.

Indiana faces the most imminent threat to rail service, as Governor Mike Pence appears to be balking at the $3 million needed to maintain the Hoosier Line between Indianapolis and Chicago. The service, which makes one round trip four days a week, also serves a number of small towns and cities. The other three days of the week, Indianapolis-Chicago service is provided by the Cardinal Line, which runs between New York and Chicago and is not facing cuts. Rail advocates are troubled at the prospect of losing daily service, which would diminish the usefulness of the Chicago to Indianapolis route.

About 37,000 passengers use the line annually, costing the federal government about $3.1 million last year, according to WICB Indianapolis. Right now it appears state leaders in Indiana aren’t willing to take on that expense.

“Our position on this is that we’ve not been interested in investing in this solely, but if communities along the path are interested in investing in this, it’s a possibility,” Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, told the Post-Tribune.

Smaller local governments may want the train, but they’re not in a position to shoulder the cost. Stephen Wood, Mayor of Rensselaer, said his town of 6,000 can’t afford to take on the expense, although they value the service.

“The communities along that route really like that train,” said Dan Johnson of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “They want it to grow. They want three or four trains a day because they don’t want to be isolated.”

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is working with locals to “save the Hoosier line.” Indiana rail supporters are also concerned if the Hoosier shuts down it could affect an Amtrak repair facility in Beech Grove, which employs 550 people, on the south side of Indianapolis.

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Columbus, Ohio, Wants In on the Midwest Rail Renaissance

Columbus, Ohio, population 800,000, is among the biggest U.S. cities without passenger rail. But its time may have finally come.

A new plan for passenger rail would link Columbus to Chicago. Image: All Aboard Ohio

A college town and state capital, Columbus has bucked the trend of urban decline in Ohio and built a strong economy on insurance and retail. The culture here has been famously resistant to rail plans, but it’s a young city that’s becoming more and more progressive. Columbus has seen major growth in its core urban neighborhoods in recent years.

Now city leaders are throwing their support behind a new plan to create a rail link from Columbus to Chicago via Fort Wayne, Indiana. A study by the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association [PDF] makes it seem like a pretty sweet deal. The group estimates that the cost of linking the three cities on existing freight rail lines would be about $1.3 billion — about one-tenth the price of connecting the two cities by highway. The group estimates the trains could travel between 110 and 130 miles per hour, completing the 355 mile trip in under four hours, making it competitive with flying and driving. The project, they estimate, would generate $1.70 for every $1 invested and would create up to 26,800 permanent jobs.

As for where the money would come from, that’s an open question. But some rail advocates are optimistic that the proposal has strong enough market potential that at least part of it could be privately funded. NIPRA estimates the system could draw $116 million in fares in the year 2020. And if population growth continues as projected, annual fare revenue could rise to $190 million by 2040.

Vince Papsidero, Columbus’s planning administrator, told the Columbus Dispatch: “This actually could be profitable.”

That said, this is still a far-away dream. The city of Columbus backed the initial study with $20,000. Proponents are trying to raise $2 million for an engineering study. After that, they’d need $10 million from the feds for an environmental impact study.

Plus, the state of Ohio is broke, and the governor hates trains.

Ken Prendergast at All Aboard Ohio points out that other states that rejected federal rail money — Florida and Wisconsin — are now pursuing expansion of their systems. Will Columbus’s interest in passenger rail be enough to bring new rail service to Ohio too?

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BTS Releases Confusing, Erroneous Transit Stats

I was all set to write a feel-good story about how the latest report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics [PDF] shows that transit ridership is up and driving is down. I made up my mind to write that story before I even looked at the report, so sure was I that that was the message.

And that is still the message. But BTS’s numbers are awfully confusing.

Let’s start with this:

The first column of numbers is 2005, the second is 2010, and the third is percentage change. Image: BTS

Wait a minute, let me get this straight. There are 4.8 percent more commercial (inter-city) buses in 2010 than there were in 2005. Considering how BoltBus and MegaBus have revolutionized inter-city bus service, making it the fastest-growing travel mode, 4.8 percent growth in five years seems a little stingy. Other reports have put it at 6 percent growth just from 2009 to 2010.

But even assuming that 4.8 percent is correct: A 4.8 percent growth in passenger miles traveled makes sense, although I might expect the growth in the mode to mean fuller buses, meaning a greater growth in PMT than number of vehicles. But it’s the 97.5 percent change in vehicle-miles traveled that I cannot fathom. That would indicate that a few buses are driving around an awful lot without a lot of people on them.

Turns out BTS simply got the number wrong. According to FHWA, where all this data supposedly comes from, there were 148 billion passenger-miles-traveled on buses in 2005 and 292 billion in 2011 — meaning passenger miles have almost doubled, along with vehicle miles.

For what it’s worth, FHWA reports the 2011 total number of private and commercial buses at 311,790.

Moving on to urban transit:
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Amtrak Foe Mica Meets His Match in John Robert Smith

I just sat through a pretty boring hearing on rail financing. But I’m glad I stuck it out, because the fireworks came at the end, when Rep. John Mica picked a fight with the wrong man.

John Robert Smith held his own in a testy exchange with Rep. John Mica today. Photo: Reconnecting America

John Robert Smith is familiar face in transportation reform circles. The former Republican mayor of the town of Meridian, Mississippi, he now leads two of the most significant advocacy organizations in the field, Transportation for America and Reconnecting America. He also happens to be a former chair of Amtrak’s board of directors. All of those qualifications made him a natural choice to testify as a witness at this House Transportation Committee hearing.

Smith’s three main points were relatively uncontroversial: (1) a national passenger rail system has significant economic value; (2) maximizing the system’s value requires increased, stable, and dedicated federal funding; and (3) station area development is a promising area for utilizing innovative financing mechanisms.

Questioning went relatively smoothly until John Mica, former committee chair and self-appointed Amtrak bully-in-chief, started in on Smith. (The video of their exchange is already on Youtube.)

Now that Mica has vacated the chairman’s seat, he’s really let his freak flag fly, as they say. No longer bound to even pretend to negotiate with the other party or with leadership, he can just focus singlemindedly on his obsession with defunding Amtrak, and he apparently doesn’t feel bound to maintain any semblance of collegiality.

Mica started off asking Smith if he was aware that the federal debt was $16 trillion, or that funding had been cut for troops to receive hot meals.

Smith replied that his focus is transportation, and since he wasn’t able to poke holes in Mica’s line of argument, allow me to fill in. I didn’t know about this cutting hot meals thing either, and my initial reaction, also, was indignation. But then I Googled it. John Mica could do this too. And if he did, he’d get a Snopes entry that says that troops get four meals a day, but yes, in a few places, a hot breakfast has been replaced with an “MRE” – “Meals Ready to Eat” – to streamline operations in preparation for force reduction. In reality, no one in the military seems all that bothered about it, and officials emphasize that it wasn’t a budget issue that prompted the change.

Kind of funny Mica would pick such a poor example of budget-cut pain when there are so many legit ones to choose from. He could even stick with the “hot meals” theme and lament the nutrition assistance he voted to cut, or the hit taken by Meals on Wheels, which will deliver four million fewer hot meals this year because of the sequester.

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Will the Next Rail Bill Make Trains Competitive With Highways and Aviation?

It may have taken three years for Congress to get it together to pass a surface transportation reauthorization, but House Republicans say that won’t happen this time.

Will the next PRIIA authorization finally give Amtrak the tools to thrive? Depends on your definition of "realistic." Photo: NetRightDaily

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chair of the Rail Subcommittee in the House, opened last Thursday’s hearing by making sure everyone in the room knew that. “Chairman Shuster and I are committed to rail reauthorization this year,” Denham said. “I state that at every hearing, because I want everybody to know that it is coming, very, very soon.”

Thursday’s hearing was the first attempt to get to the heart of what needs to be included in the next rail authorization. (We at Streetsblog made our best guess a few months ago.) The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 expires at the end of September. Now is a good time to set a vision for what the next iteration of that law should accomplish.

And really, it’s simple: The next bill should make rail a more competitive mode with highways and aviation. To do that, it will need far more stable funding, at far higher levels, than it’s historically received from the federal government. An expected population increase of 100 million people over the next few decades demands a dramatic shift to more efficient modes, and rail consumes far less space and energy for intercity travel than highways and airports.

But far from making bold pronouncements about rail’s critical role in the nation’s future, Rep. Denham seemed to consider his main job to be the management of expectations. Every witness testified to the paramount importance of stable, predictable federal funding at a level sufficient to maintain state of good repair and invest in line improvements. But Denham wanted to be “realistic.” Reliable, yes — he agreed the funding had to be more predictable than it’s been. But he warned that it’ll be predictably low. He derided the Federal Railroad Administration’s $2.7 billion Amtrak budget proposal for 2014 as “pie in the sky.”

“Best case scenario, I think, is current funding,” he said. That’s what the Senate has proposed for next year — $1.45 billion for Amtrak – while the House seems to think the passenger rail company can make do with half a billion less than that.

FRA Chief Joe Szabo said his agency’s budget was “realistic and appropriate” and it was time to stop treating rail like a “forgotten stepchild” among the modes.

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Senate Offers a More Multi-Modal 2014 Transportation Budget Than the House

Last week, a House panel envisioned some big cuts to next year’s transportation budget. TIGER and high-speed rail would get nothing, Amtrak would get slashed, and ixnay on all that green “livability” crap. (And that’s practically a quote.)

The recent collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state inspired the Senate to include a $500 million program for bridge repair in its 2014 budget. Photo: CNN

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted this morning on the budget its own transportation subcommittee put together, and the end product couldn’t have been more different. Where the House allowed for $44 billion in discretionary spending, the Senate wants to budget $54 billion. To hell with the Ryan budget and to hell with the sequester, too.

Many experts see all this budgeting as an exercise in futility, however. In recent years, the House and Senate have been so unable to see eye to eye on budgeting that they’ve passed a series of continuing resolutions, basically freezing current budget levels in place. That looks like a likely outcome for 2014, as well. That’s not the worst thing in the world, since the budget that’s been frozen in place since 2011 contains funding for TIGER, sustainability grants, high-speed rail and other important discretionary programs.

Still, the appropriations process is a useful time when each chamber shows its hand. And what we learned is that the Senate is still far more willing than the House to invest in transportation infrastructure, especially infrastructure that could help shepherd the country toward a less car-dependent future.

Under the Senate plan, not only would U.S. DOT award the full $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants (the House would take away half of that), another $550 million would be allotted for round six. (Once overhead is taken out, that would probably mean about $520 million for grants.)

The Senate’s been lukewarm on high-speed rail lately, refusing to zero out the program like the House but also not throwing its full support behind the president’s vision of giving 80 percent of Americans access to HSR within 25 years (though even Obama doesn’t mention that goal anymore). The subcommittee allocated $100 million for what it’s now calling high-performance passenger rail grants. With people like Anderson Cooper bellyaching when sound, effective rail grants still don’t bring speeds above 110 mph, it probably wasn’t a bad idea to change the rhetoric from “speed” to “performance.” Still, the Senate’s allocation pales in comparison to the president’s $40 billion budget request for high-speed rail over five years.

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“The Twilight of the Appropriations Process”: House GOP Gets Its Knives Out

Constrained by Paul Ryan’s budget and the sequester, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and HUD passed a $44 billion spending bill for 2014 – 15 percent lower than 2013 enacted levels. The bill contains $15.3 billion in discretionary appropriations for the Department of Transportation, also 15 percent below enacted 2013 levels and amounting to about two-thirds of the president’s request. It passed the subcommitee this morning on a voice vote.

Rep. David Price (D-NC): "Are we totally helpless here?"

The budget would eliminate both TIGER and high-speed rail funding (as have all House-passed budgets in recent memory), cut Amtrak’s subsidy by a third, and bring HUD’s Community Development Block Grants back to Ford administration levels. While the cuts are steep, as in past years they are unlikely to be enacted, given Democratic control of the Senate.

At today’s markup, even subcommittee chair Tom Latham (R-IA) admitted that cutting $7.7 billion was “extremely challenging” and “not an easy task.” No other Republican spoke at all. While Latham’s official statement upon the introduction of the bill said that it was crafted “in a bipartisan fashion,” he admitted during the markup that he could thank Ranking Member Ed Pastor only for good “communication” rather than “cooperation” on the bill, since the top committee Democrat wasn’t “a huge fan of the product.”

Across the board, Democrats disavowed the bill and the process that begat it. While many acknowledged that Latham had received “an impossible allocation” from Rep. Paul Ryan’s Budget Committee, Democrats made it clear that the 15 percent cut was “unacceptable.” The appropriation is $4.4 billion lower than the amount allowed by the sequester.

Nita Lowey, ranking member of the full Appropriations Committee, said this budget “impairs the economic recovery,” and Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley said the bill “defies financial common sense,” not to mention the committee’s “moral obligations” to preserve the social safety net. David Price of North Carolina said it was “a grossly inadequate bill” that goes “way beyond the normal range of disagreements and difficulties with appropriations.” He mused that it could be “the twilight of the appropriations process.”

“I’ve never known us to be in this kind of institutional crisis,” Price said. “Are we totally helpless here? I know that’s what we hear, that we’re boxed in by sequestration, that we’re boxed in by the absence of a budget agreement.”

Price suggested the need for leadership “perhaps outside the conventional channels,” implying that they, the appropriators — who understand better than anyone the damaging cuts that are necessitated by such an austere budget — need to take the reins back from the deficit hawks in the Budget Committee.

Highway and transit programs maintain their MAP-21-authorized levels of $41 billion and $8.6 billion, respectively, in the appropriations bill. That represents a $557 million increase for highways over this year. These programs come out of the Highway Trust Fund and so aren’t included in the appropriations bill’s top-line numbers.

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Amtrak Looking to Handle Growing Demand for Bikes on Board

Amtrak can be a great option if you want to travel to another city sans car. But if you want to take your bike on board an Amtrak train, on most routes you’ll have to dismantle it, at least partially, and fit it in a box that for a $10 fee can be stowed with the luggage. Then once you arrive, you’ll have to put it back together — if you know how — before rolling away from the station.

More cities and town served by Amtrak are calling for bikes to be allowed on board, like they are on the Capitol Corridor route. Image: Bikecommutetips.com

Only eight Amtrak routes (Amtrak Cascades, Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner, Downstate Illinois Services, Missouri River Runner, Piedmont) allow passengers to roll bikes on board fully assembled. Even those that do allow “walk-on” service only do so in very limited numbers; most trains allow just six bikes per train. (Though if you have a folding bike you can store it in carry-on luggage.)

But Amtrak is seeing increased demand for walk-on bike service across the United States. In California, demand for bike accommodations has been so overwhelming that Caltrans and Amtrak recently added a reservations system for walk-on bike service for the Pacific Surfliner. Before the policy, if too many  passengers wanted to bring bikes on board, they were bumped or, at best, forced to hold bikes in the aisle.

Passengers in some states are still struggling to have non-folding bikes allowed on board at all. New York lawmakers are pushing Amtrak to allow walk-on bikes on additional routes out of Penn Station, saying it will boost tourism income for upstate New York. A coalition of lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer and New York State Senators Betty Little and Brad Hoylman, held a press conference yesterday urging Amtrak to include bike cars on two lines — the Adirondack and Ethan Allen — serving the upstate area and beyond.

Dan MacEntee, a spokesman for Little, said that many New York City residents, as well as many international tourists to New York, do not have access to cars. They might visit the Adirondacks or northwestern parts of the state in the summer but don’t have a convenient method of transport. Little has been advocating for walk-on bike service on Amtrak trains for years, and local bike groups and chambers of commerce around the state have been demanding it. The Saratoga Chamber of Commerce has so far collected more than 500 signatures on its petition to Amtrak President Joseph Boardman advocating for bike access on trains.

“We think that it would be a wonderful service for Amtrak to provide,” said MacEntee, adding that Amtrak would reap more revenue from increased ridership.

Steve Kulm, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the agency is looking for opportunities to retrofit train cars to allow more convenient bike transport. Kulm said most of the lines that allow walk-on bikes receive additional funding from the state. If the state owns some of the train cars, it can design them to accommodate bikes. In the meantime, most folks who want to travel by train will have to leave their bikes at home or seek a different route altogether.