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The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 (PRIIA – H.R. 749) on February 12 by a unanimous voice vote, and the bill is expected to move to the House Floor as early as next week. The bi-partisan bill was introduced by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-OR), along with the subcommittee chair and ranking member and 18 other members from both parties. While the bill does not include the kind of substantial new federal program for high-speed and intercity passenger rail recommended by APTA, it passed with broad bi-partisan support and the committee is expected to seek a rule that would limit the number of amendments. The bill is expected to go to the House Floor as early as next week.
The bill authorizes funds in FY 2016-2019 for the nation’s passenger rail, including Amtrak, Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General, and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) loan and grant programs. It authorizes $5.8 billion for Amtrak over the period, and $1.2 billion for grants to states for capital costs related to intercity passenger rail service. It establishes two Amtrak accounts; the Northeast Corridor (NEC) Improvement Fund, and the National Network Account, and directs about one-third of the $1.4 to $1.5 billion annual funding into the NEC Fund, with the balance deposited into the National Account. It directs the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (NEC Commission) to work with Amtrak, FRA, and the states to develop a 5-year NEC Capital Investment Plan that would govern spending in the corridor. It requires Amtrak to provide detailed information to states on costs, and it creates a State-Supported Route Advisory Committee, which includes U.S. DOT, Amtrak, and the seven states on the NEC that sponsor such routes, to plan and coordinate.
The bill establishes a pilot program where FRA would review bids to provide Amtrak services at no more than 90 percent of what Amtrak spent in the previous year. It makes modifications to the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program aimed at increasing its use, and it sets limits on the review of loans by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Finally, the measure prevents the Secretary from obligating grants under the High-speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program unless certain conditions are met.
USDOT Secretary Foxx Announces Proposed Rule to Increase State Safety Oversight of Rail Transit Systems
On February 20, 2015, USDOT Secretary Foxx announced a proposed rule to increase oversight responsibilities of State Safety Oversight Agencies (SSOAs) by replacing the existing regulatory framework with one intended to better evaluate the effectiveness of a rail transit agency’s system safety program. With this proposed rule, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would give states more resources to increase oversight over rail transit systems, which would require adoption and enforcement of federal and state safety laws, and require SSOAs to be financially and legally independent of the rail transit systems they oversee.
In addition, the FTA proposes to explain its authority to review and approve each State Safety Oversight (SSO) program, including triennial audits, review of annual status reports, and certification of SSOAs. If states are not meeting the statutory criteria, the FTA may withhold federal funds until an SSO program is certified. Public comments on the proposed rule will be accepted for sixty days after its publication in the Federal Register. The proposed rule addresses the use of Safety Management Systems that focus on organization-wide safety policy, proactive hazard identification and risk informed decision-making as part of risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion.
Support for Fixing the Highway Trust Fund
A letter to Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urging the support of a long-term fix of the Highway Trust Fund was signed by nearly 300 Members of the chamber. The letter states a clear need for a departure from the temporary extensions that have sustained the system recently and impeded larger projects and future planning to continue. The full letter can be viewed here.
Surface Transportation Hearings
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) each held hearings this week focusing on the need for surface transportation investment. The Senate hearing featured transportation operators and business leaders who unanimously endorsed robust federal spending for surface transportation. The witnesses made the case that the fiscally responsible solution is to invest in infrastructure now, both to address the state of good repair backlog and to grow the economy. Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and other Senators argued against devolution of the federal transportation program and called for greater leadership on this issue.
The House Appropriations THUD Subcommittee hearing featured Secretary Foxx, who made the case for growth in federal transportation programs and highlighted his Department’s “Beyond Traffic” study, which describes a 30-year framework for future transportation needs. Subcommittee members questioned Foxx on a wide variety of matters including Highway Trust Fund revenues, safety issues, the positive train control deadline, and the need for federal investment in public transportation.