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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.

No more of these diesels.

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.

Denham asked Szabo what reforms the agency would undergo to find efficiencies to save money. It’s the same question House Republicans had during the last transportation bill debate: How can transportation agencies “do more with less"? The answer they heard, time and again, was, “We can’t.” While Amtrak can undoubtedly be run more efficiently, Denham and company don’t seem to get that rail also needs the resources to invest in better track and trains.

Top subcommittee Democrat Corrine Brown of Florida gets it. “If we’re going to focus on national rail policy, we ought to be discussing the impact of constantly cutting federal support for Amtrak while demanding more and more reforms,” she said. “How can Amtrak improve long-distance routes without funding? How can we expect Amtrak to reduce trip time when we fail to make the infrastructure investments that are needed to implement these reductions?”

Current funding levels represent the same underinvestment rail has suffered for decades, and according to Szabo, we have to start making up for that, rather than perpetuating it.

What Szabo wants to see is a spot for rail in a remodeled Highway Trust Fund – a Transportation Trust Fund that would “provide sustained funding on par with the other modes.” Unfortunately, the other modes are staring down the barrel of imminent insolvency, so clearly the trust fund isn’t the solution, in and of itself. Michael Melaniphy of the American Public Transportation Association added that rail should have a dedicated and indexed revenue stream -- as opposed to the current gas tax, stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon for the last 20 years -- complemented by public-private partnerships.

Denham is also a chief opponent of the high-speed rail project in his home state of California. He said he wanted the money to go to “realistic local projects” to benefit the existing rail ridership rather than the “unrealistic” high-speed rail project with “exploding costs.”

Szabo tried to make the argument that Congress would be betting on a winner if it invested in Amtrak right now. He credited PRIIA and the Rail Safety Act, also passed in 2008, as being “game-changing” pieces of legislation. Not only was 2012 the safest year in the history of railroads, he said, but Amtrak’s on-time performance, ridership, and revenues are at all-time highs.

Szabo also pointed to research showing that Americans are driving less and increasingly choosing other transportation options. Rail is the fastest-growing mode of travel. He makes a compelling case that this would be a perverse time to slash funding.

PRIIA forced states to take more responsibility in funding the lines that serve them, but Michael Lewis of AASHTO and RIDOT said the details of how those contracts should be written is work left over for this reauthorization.

Lewis also pushed for a goal of zero deaths, including at rail crossings. And he suggested that MAP-21’s project streamlining measures should be extended to rail projects. “The amount of time it takes for a rail project to move from planning to actual construction could be reduced by half,” he said, “saving millions in construction costs.”

Several witnesses also took the opportunity to express their commitment to -- and concern about -- positive train control, a key safety feature required to be installed on every train and track by 2015. The industry universally says that deadline is unrealistic, and the FRA says it’s up to Congress to change it, but nothing has been done. Melaniphy urged Congress to at least provide the radio spectrum needed for PTC’s wireless communication free of cost.

Ed Hamberger of the freight industry advocated forcefully for scaled-up Amtrak funding, but he was careful to protect his turf. He said he was quoting Joseph Szabo when he said, “Yes, America deserves a world-class passenger rail system, but not if it comes at the expense of what is already the world’s best freight rail system.” Hamberger also couldn’t help mentioning that freight rail -- unlike passenger rail -- is overwhelmingly privately owned and operated.

Hamberger attempted to stake out his position on some freight/passenger rail tensions. First of all, he said, it should be up to the industries to figure out how to manage schedules. The government shouldn’t get involved. Plus, passenger trains can’t safely operate over 79 miles per hour on freight rail tracks. If they go any faster than that, they’d best get their own track, and it best be a fair distance away. Passenger rail should pay for the freight infrastructure it uses, he recommended, and never jeopardize freight capacity, which will continue to grow, as does passenger rail, with population growth.

Rep. Lou Bartletta drew attention to the undersubscribed Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing Program, a lending program for railroads that’s only approved $1.7 billion in loans since 2000 – and it has $35 billion to spend. A better use of current programs could be one of those “efficiencies” Rep. Denham is looking for.

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