This Week at Amtrak; January 23, 2009
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
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Volume 6, Number 3
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1) "What we’ve got here is failure to communicate." is the famous line uttered by the late, great character actor Strother Martin to the even greater late Paul Newman in 1967's Cool Hand Luke movie. While Mr. Martin’s character, when addressing Mr. Newman’s character, was specifically talking about some perceived naughtiness by Mr. Newman’s character, we can use this famous line when referring to Amtrak, too.
When the House of Representatives version of the new Obama administration’s nearly $1 trillion stimulus plan was announced January 15th, Amtrak and passenger rail fans were agog at how little was included in the plan for the benefit of Amtrak. After all, Amtrak had recently requested over $7 billion in projects it felt were "shovel ready," and, certainly, the thinking of so many went, no organization could be more worthy than Amtrak for free federal largess to help the economy get back on a solid footing.
Whoops! Amtrak was only allotted $1.1 billion in the House version, with the Senate still unheard from. But, you can bet the Senate version won’t be markedly different from the House version; maybe – at best – an extra billion, but nowhere near what the alleged cognoscenti thought would be coming the way of Amtrak and passenger rail. So, what happened (besides reality striking)?
First, let’s visit the most recent column, Volume 20, No. 2, released by Ken Orski and Innovation NewsBriefs, an always informative source for transportation infrastructure topics. (www.innobriefs.com)
January 18, 2009
The Stimulus Bill Leaves Most of the Transportation Community Dissatisfied
It looks like the economic stimulus proposal unveiled by the House Appropriations Committee on January 15 has left few in the transportation community satisfied. That’s a conclusion we have drawn from informal conversations at the just concluded annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board and from reviewing the National Journal’s Transportation Blog. (The stimulus program has been a focus of discussion on that blog during the past week. The blog can be found at www.transportation.nationaljournal.com). Voicing disappointment were members of the House transportation committee and a wide array of interest groups ranging from the highway users and the construction industry to transit and airport officials, labor unions and environmentalists. According to a January 15 Wall Street Journal story, some members of the House transportation committee protested at a congressional Democratic caucus session last Thursday against what they deemed a grossly inadequate level of funding for transportation projects. In a radio interview on "Marketplace" the same day, Highway and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) made no attempt to hide his displeasure. He pointed out that the transportation sector has received a scant 7% of the proposed stimulus package despite the high potential of transportation funding to create jobs and revitalize the economy.
The House transportation leaders’ dissatisfaction was echoed by a wide variety of transportation stakeholders who voiced disappointment with what they felt was inadequate consideration of their particular needs. "Transportation infrastructure investment should be a core component of an economic stimulus plan," stated a Transportation Construction Coalition release, expressing the views of its leaders, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). Writing in the National Journal’s Transportation Blog, Terry O’Sullivan, President of the Laborers’ International Union (LIUNA) criticized the proposed level of infrastructure investment as falling "far short of needs and ... of the opportunity to invest in a way that can revive our economy and leave behind tangible assets and a positive legacy for generations to come." James C. May, President of the Air Transport Association thought the House missed a real opportunity to create new jobs by failing to invest more in the aviation sector.
Environmental spokesmen such as Deron Lovaas, Transportation Policy Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Geoff Anderson, Co-Chair of the liberal Transportation for America Campaign, were blunt in criticizing the House proposal, calling its allocation to mass transit and passenger rail as inadequate and disproportionately low compared to the highway allocation. Other environmental activists decried the House bill in even stronger terms, calling it "disastrous," a "capitulation" and completely lacking any emphasis on "fix-it-first," "green" transportation projects.
The House Appropriations Committee’s $825 billion draft bill (with $550 billion in spending initiatives and $275 billion in tax cuts) would dedicate $30 billion to highways, $9 billion to public transportation, $3 billion to airport runway projects and $1.1 billion to Amtrak and intercity passenger rail. An additional $7.75 billion would be spent on flood control, navigation and public lands infrastructure. The House proposal would require a certain percentage of each state allocation to be distributed to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), based on population. In selecting projects, the draft bill specifies that priority should be given to projects that are in an approved Transportation Improvement Program and can be contracted within 120 days. Grant recipients must certify that the projects contribute to job creation and are an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. (The draft bill can be found at http://appropriations.house.gov/pdf/recoveryreport01-15-09.pdf)
Short-term vs Long-term Benefits
What kind of projects deserve to be funded has been likewise a subject of debate. Opinion is roughly divided between those who view the short term economic impact and job creation as the primary (or sole) goals of the stimulus program, and those who view the stimulus as an opportunity to invest in the country’s infrastructure and achieve long-term benefits. "Unless we spend those dollars on the right things (which requires a plan) and efficiently (which requires non-political iron handed oversight) we will ... fail to create the infrastructure needed to support an economy vigorous enough to repay the dollars we are spending," wrote Robert Crandall, retired Chairman of American Airlines in the National Journal’s Transportation Blog. Steve Heminger, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission concurred, evoking the potential of the economic recovery program to launch major infrastructure projects such as those built during the New Deal, whose benefits, he pointed out, Bay Area residents enjoy to this very day.
Jeffrey Shane, former Deputy Secretary of Transportation, speculated that "a national ranking of the most productive transportation investments would look very different from the aggregation of a fifty-state wish list" but, he added, "let’s give our state authorities some credit for knowing what works." Bob Poole, Transportation Director at the Reason Foundation, observed that the process inherent in the stimulus bill "substitutes political priorities for economic priorities," and the use of existing allocation formulas spreads the money across the country rather than focusing funds on high-performing projects that offer maximum pay off. Polly Trottenberg, Executive Director of the Building America’s Future Coalition agreed, noting that "the political process may be producing a result which is at odds with what the public supports." She cited a Coalition-sponsored public opinion survey that stressed the importance of setting priorities and measuring outcomes.
As Steve Sandherr, AGC’s Chief Operating Officer pointed out, many of the details of the stimulus bill will inevitably change over the coming weeks. In fact, as one congressional source told us, the fight has only just begun. Over the next several weeks we shall see some of the most intense lobbying in recent history. The stakes are extremely high. State and municipal governments, the non-profit sector, businesses, and the construction industry are facing tremendous economic pressures and the stimulus bill offers for some of them a rare avenue of relief. The intensity of the lobbying is magnified by the promise of unprecedented sums of money dangled in front of the stakeholders. For example, the $39 billion stimulus allocation to surface transportation represents almost 80 percent of the entire FY 2008 appropriations for highways and transit ($49.9 billion)
Needed: A National Strategy for Infrastructure
Could the stimulus package influence the plans for a new surface transportation authorization later this year? One could argue that an injection of a substantial sum of stimulus money might lessen the need and the pressure for a prompt enactment of new surface transportation legislation. The longer it takes Congress to approve the stimulus bill, the easier it will be for lawmakers to put off consideration of a separate surface transportation bill. Faced with a crowded legislative agenda, congressional legislators might convince themselves that the immediate needs of the transportation program have been taken care of and can safely be postponed until 2010 or beyond. Of course, it can be argued that postponing the reauthorization by one year might not be such a bad thing after all. It would give Congress and the Obama Administration more breathing space to thoroughly reexamine the existing transportation policy and fundamentally restructure the federal program.
Contending that the economic recovery package is no substitute for a multi-year legislation will be House transportation leaders and an array of transportation interests. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) has already announced that he plans to introduce and pass "the largest transportation investment package since the creation of the Interstate Highway System" (as much as $500 billion over six years). Transportation interest groups such as ARTBA, AASHTO, APTA and AGC will be solidly aligned behind the Chairman. Another strong advocate of a multi-year strategy of infrastructure investment is Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. Speaking at a January 12 Brookings symposium on Infrastructure, Rendell observed that investment in infrastructure will have to continue long after the stimulus program has expired. He called for a long-term vision to finance major capital investments through a dedicated federal capital budget and a National Infrastructure Bank. (Unconfirmed reports at the end of the week had the National Infrastructure Bank proposal in real danger of being killed by opposition in the Senate Finance Committee).
The current debate surrounding the infrastructure priorities in the stimulus bill offers a preview of the debate later this year (or in 2010) about the structure and priorities of the new surface transportation legislation. But unlike the stimulus bill, the reauthorization will not have the benefit of easy, deficit-financed money. It will require either raising new funds through a politically risky gas tax increase or coming up with some new untried financing mechanisms. The authors of the transportation authorization will face a far more difficult challenge than simply allocating seemingly "free" money.
Let’s add to what Mr. Orski had to say. He’s given a good, broad picture of what it will take for infrastructure improvements.
We can safely conclude, without hesitation, part of the lack of funding for Amtrak projects has very much to do with two simple concepts: First, Amtrak remains America’s best kept secret, and second, Amtrak still only accounts for 1% (yes, one percent) of America’s transportation output, or, about the same as motorcycles.
So, Amtrak has a failure to communicate. When not that many people know – and, as a result, care – about you, why should a flood of funding come your way? Amtrak has burned so many bridges through the years by abandoning routes and stations (Often, stations just recently completed with local or state monies.), annoying Members of Congress in uncountable ways on just about every subject, and by ignoring glaring business opportunities on every level, it was/almost is not relevant in a national stimulus package discussion.
Now, everyone who understands the business of passenger rail and the desirability of passenger rail as a legitimate part of our domestic transportation network knows this is a golden opportunity for passenger rail to waddle up to Washington’s golden trough of money and gobble up some free federal monies. The question is, will Amtrak be able to get its snout close enough to the trough to slurp up a few dollars?
2) Even before the Obama administration was inaugurated last Tuesday, the criticism began to flow after the announcement of the stimulus plan spending allocations. It only took seconds for Internet bloggers to reach a high pitched whine about the lack of support for Amtrak, especially since "Amtrak Joe," (that would be Vice President Joe Biden, dubbed Amtrak Joe by the news media) used to commute daily on Amtrak between his Wilmington, Delaware home and Washington when he was serving in the Senate. It seems more than one blogger made the incorrect assumption that since Amtrak Joe was now just a heartbeat away from the presidency, and his son is Vice Chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors, Amtrak’s worries about federal funding were at an end.
Wrong, of course. All of these misguided, yet hopeful, Internet bloggers forgot to take into account how Washington works. No matter who Amtrak has as an abstract friend, it still has to prove it’s worthy of extra funding, especially when the federal budget is in a huge deficit mode.
What it’s going to take is honest hard work, backed up by real documentation – not Amtrak’s and it’s wholly owned lapdog organizations’ hyperbole – demonstrating money spent is money well spent.
Anything worth having is worth working for, and that includes free federal monies.
3) Paul Dyson, the take-no-prisoners president of the Rail Passenger Association of California has sent a letter to Amtrak Interim President and Chief Executive Office Joseph Boardman. Here’s is Mr. Dyson’s letter. We can only hope all other state association presidents are being this proactive and sending similar letters at the earliest possible moment.
16th January, 2009
Mr. Joseph H. Boardman
President and Chief Executive Officer
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION
60 Massachusetts Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Via Fax to 202 906 2850 (2 Pages)
AMTRAK ROLLING STOCK INVESTMENT PLANS
Dear Mr. Boardman:
As you take up your new duties as President of Amtrak, albeit so far on temporary assignment, we’d like to draw your attention to some distressing tendencies in Amtrak policy over recent years. We refer in particular to the geographic imbalance of Amtrak investment, and the capital starvation of service west of the Mississippi. It has been the case for some years now that 95%, more or less, of Amtrak’s capital budget has gone to the NEC, and at the same time most of the long distance trains in the west have had almost no new equipment since the 1970s. If this trend is continued, and the current 5-year rolling stock plan indicates that it will be, then trains such as the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder will cease to operate for want of serviceable cars in a few short years. Our Board believes that this will be both politically and economically disastrous for the future of passenger rail in the USA.
We believe that you should quickly review this policy and redress this imbalance as soon as possible. Consider these points:
• Even though Amtrak owns the NEC, it is the minority user as far as trains and passengers are concerned. The commuter agencies that share the route need to contribute more to bringing the route up to date and into good order. We do not advocate starving the NEC, or any other market, of appropriate capital resources, but it would be just as foolish to continue to starve productive western routes.
• We see no regulatory reason why Amtrak should expect the State of California or other western states to provide the rolling stock and other capital improvements for trains on the existing National network. San Diego to San Luis Obispo for example is part of this network and is every bit as deserving of its share of Amtrak’s capital investment as any other route in the country. Since most journeys, even in the shorter state corridors, are longer than most journeys in the NEC, we believe that the western routes are more productive in revenue and passenger miles, and can generate a better return on investment.
• Both the California corridors and the long distance trains need new cars. We believe that these cars can be built using a common hull and many standard components. Indeed the coach car can be common to all these services. We believe that Amtrak should immediately be placing an order for this type of equipment. A long term order with steady state production of say 2,000 cars will give the manufacturer and supplier the opportunity to reduce costs substantially.
We have started to take this message to the California congressional delegation. We are pointing out that California taxpayers are paying twice for Amtrak service, through federal and State taxes, and that this is not acceptable. While most of our elected officials support Amtrak funding as a concept, very few understand the funding mechanisms and the direction in which the money flows. This is changing.
Mr. Boardman, we wish you every success in your new position. We’d be delighted if you could attend our Spring combined members meeting (date to be announced) in Los Angeles. We’d like to discuss these issues with you and give you the opportunity to meet a core group of passenger rail supporters.
Paul J. Dyson
President, Rail Passenger Association of California
4) From Steven Aftergood and the Federation of American Scientists (Amtrak, are you paying attention? It’s time to mend your ways.):
[Begin quote/edited for relevancy]
Date: Thu, 22 Jan 2009
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 7
January 22, 2009
Secrecy News Blog:
PRESIDENT OBAMA DECLARES "A NEW ERA OF OPENNESS"
In a breathtaking series of statements and executive actions, President Barack Obama yesterday announced "the beginning of a new era of openness in our country."
"For a long time now there's been too much secrecy in this city," he told reporters at a January 21 swearing-in ceremony.
"The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed" (a paraphrase of the October 2001 policy statement of former Attorney General John Ashcroft). "That era is now over."
"Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known," President Obama said.
Moreover, "I will also hold myself, as president, to a new standard of openness.... Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well-grounded in the Constitution."
"Let me say it as simply as I can. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."
Accordingly, the President issued several new policy statements. A new policy on Freedom of Information directed that "All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure" and called for the Attorney General to develop new FOIA guidelines reflecting that principle. A broader statement on Transparency and Open Government directed agencies to "harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public," and ordered preparation of recommendations for an Open Government Directive. A new executive order rescinded an order issued by former President Bush that imposed increased restrictions on public access to presidential records.
The whole package gained immense force from the fact that it was presented on the President's first full day in office. (By comparison, the Clinton and Bush Administrations did not get around to addressing FOIA policy until October of their first year in office.) The actions closely tracked the recommendations of openness advocates, and they represented a personal commitment to openness and accountability that goes far beyond what any previous President has dared to offer.
Inevitably, several caveats are in order. A "presumption of disclosure" really only applies to records that are potentially subject to discretionary release, which is a finite subset of secret government information. Vast realms of information are sequestered behind classification barriers or statutory protections that remain unaffected by the new policy statements. "In the face of doubt, openness prevails," the President said. But throughout the government secrecy system, there is not a lot of doubt or soul-searching about the application of secrecy.
Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.
The Secrecy News Blog is at:
Project on Government Secrecy
Federation of American Scientists
voice: (202) 454-4691
Memo to Amtrak: At the earliest possible moment, many of us crave a better understanding of how you allocate expenses to all routes, especially the long distance routes. Also, please explain how the Northeast Corridor is considered profitable, even though not all of the expenses of ownership and operation are fully allocated, and many of the daily expenses of NEC operations are hidden in capital expenditure accounts, instead.
5) Amtrak has been unbelievably naughty this winter by constantly annulling trains in the Midwest and elsewhere (sometimes for days at a time) because of lack of working locomotives. These are not just issues related to cold weather, but issues related to outright neglect of the non-NEC locomotive fleet in order to not spend money on proper routine maintenance and repair of these valuable assets.
For the moment, the burning question is, why has William Crosbie, Amtrak vice president and chief operating officer, allowed this situation to deteriorate to such a degree as Amtrak is unable to fulfill its basic purpose of operating passenger trains on a routine basis? It’s impossible to blame this situation of a lack of funds; it’s a lack of management priorities. Mr. Boardman, what is being done about this deplorable situation?
More on this in the next issue of This Week at Amtrak.
6) An update on the last issue of TWA from Joe Vranich:
A Google alert showed that you are attributing a definition of High Speed Rail to me being one of 180 MPH or more. Please note that I've never used that figure. I have used 150 MPH or more. At one time that speed could have been considered the "official" HSR definition under U.S. law when the IRS code was modified to permit tax-exempt bonds to be used to help finance HSR systems – provided trains reached (if I remember the language correctly) "sustained" speeds of 150 MPH or more.
BTW, the fastest HSR train in the world today is in China, between Beijing and Tianjin, at 217 MPH.
Hope you are well,
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