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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rail and the 2012 Election Part 2

PRIIA Section 209

Whether we get meaningful reform or no reform at all will be determined by this time in 2016 but a more imminent issue will affect the world of intercity rail: How will states pay for corridors? This particular section of the 2008 law mandates that all non-NEC corridors will have to be paid full cost by the states by next October.

The horror stories have slowly trickled out. So far, the fretting has come from areas that either have gotten a free ride from Amtrak or routes that are considered to be part of the Amtrak system. I have to openly wonder if the rail community or states ever paid attention to this provision. Instead of whining about having to pay up next fall, states ought to look at the competition provision that allows them to bid their routes to other operators. If they do this, then it may cost less for someone else to run the service.


FRA reform

Neither Obama nor Romney brought it up during the presidential campaign but reforming the FRA is imperative during the president's second term. If Mica hasn't already brought it up in the last 20 months, then he needs to during one his last three hearings during the lame duck session because the Federal Railroad Administration is broken.

Let me count the ways on how the agency's become burdensome:

  • The Greenbrier Express fiasco
  • Drama with Talgo dating back to the turn of the millennium
  • Playing favorites when it comes to states selecting railcars

If Caltrain can get a waiver and successfully demonstrate that lighter equipment can make it here in America, why can't the FRA get with the program and curb the requirement that trains have to resemble tanks?

Some railfans have defended the agency's actions--some have even used 9/11 to justify the bulky equipment--but Stephen Smith, Paul Druce, Drunk Engineer, and Alon Levy have all refuted such nonsense. If the White House and Congress fail to change the FRA's methods, we will continue to have mediocre to poor rail service with oversized vehicles.


The rail community's strategy

Now is the time to not just support Amtrak but to embrace all companies who want to provide intercity service in America. Since high speed rail is at best on hold, the focus should be on rebuilding our intercity rail system (i.e., the long-distance routes), making sure that corridors are operated at the lowest cost possible since many states continue to face budget deficits, and being open to entrepreneurial approaches.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rail and the 2012 Election Part 1

Rail-related referenda

The good

This was a mixed bag. Here in NC, Orange County passed a transit sales tax. Among the things approved will be a new Amtrak station in Hillsborough and the county's commitment to light commuter rail projects. This means that two-thirds of the Triangle are committed to developing a mass transit system of buses and trains. Wake County is a holdout due to conservative, anti-transit commissioners maintaining a 4-3 majority.

Residents in Virginia Beach want the Tide to be extended from Norfolk to their city. It's now up to the Virginia Beach City Council to approve an extension of the light rail route.

Heavy rail survives after a candidate favoring the Honolulu project wins.


The not-so-good

Anything from California requiring a sales tax increase took a beating. Both items fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to become law.


High speed rail

The divergent results in Congress--Republicans adding seats in the House and Democrats adding seats in the Senate--means HSR will be in a holding pattern until 2015 or '17 which means absolutely no funding whatsoever. Outside of California and the Northeast Corridor, advocates will have to hope that more private companies like JR Central and XpressWest step up to the plate to provide European-style rail service.


The overall impact on rail

At the state level

Minnesota's legislature flips to the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party while the GOP adds seats in Wisconsin. The overall verdict? The Gopher State will be picking up the entire bill for the planned daytime Chicago-St. Paul route while the rest of the Midwest prays like crazy that Scott Walker is pink slipped in two years.

In New Hampshire, the GOP lost the House and nearly lost the Senate. This could lead to the state to  participate in funding an MBTA extension to Concord and the planned Boston-Montreal route. 

Funding for the rest of the SEHSR system could be in a tough spot after the GOP won a veto-proof majority in the state House (the NC Senate was already veto-proof after the '10 election). Last year, the legislature was able to prevent the NCDOT from receiving federal funds without its approval.


Nationally...

At the federal level, bargaining will be the name of the game. Either the status quo will be maintained and we get no meaningful passenger rail reform or Congress and the president are able to give a bit to end 41+ years of mediocre rail service that has led to America being a laggard. Personally, I want to see the Democrats drop their competition-averse stance and realize that maintaining a monopoly is a detriment to passenger rail. Competitors are chomping to operate routes  and they should not be riddled with ridiculous burdens nor should they be ridiculed for wanting to take on Amtrak (I will address regulations in my next post). On the other hand, I want the Republicans to realize that government has to play some role in regulating passenger rail and that some funding for rail service will have to come from D.C.