T&I Hearing Looks at Expanded Intercity Passenger Rail

T&I Hearing Looks at Expanded Intercity Passenger Rail

December 10, 2021  | Brianne Eby

On Thursday, December 9, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee held a hearing, “Leveraging IIJA: Plans for Expanding Intercity Passenger Rail.”

Panelists included:

  • Stephen Gardner, President, Amtrak
  • Secretary David Kim, California State Transportation Agency
  • Kevin Corbett, President and CEO, New Jersey Transit, and Co-Chair of the Northeast Corridor Commission (speaking on behalf of the Northeast Corridor Commission)
  • Julie White, Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation, North Carolina Department of Transportation and Commission Chair, Southeast Corridor Commission
  • Donna DeMartino, Managing Director, Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency
  • Knox Ross, Mississippi Commissioner and Chair, Southern Rail Commission

Ridership

Gardner was asked several times about his predictions for future Amtrak ridership. Currently, Amtrak is at 80 percent of its pre-COVID ridership, and he indicated that he expects the return to pre-pandemic levels will take several years. He said the situation that created value for passenger travel (e.g. traffic congestion and a desire for a more comfortable trip) are appealing to a broad section of Americans, in particular younger generations, and these forces will facilitate continued ridership growth.

Reps. Randy Weber (R-TX) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) both emphasized the importance of customer service for bolstering ridership, and Gardner took the opportunity to highlight Amtrak’s efforts at improving communication technologies, new pricing structures, upgraded fleet, and restored dining service on western trains. He said the service has increased ridership among new riders by 500,000 people per month.

Service Disruptions

According to Gardner’s testimony, as of the beginning of this week, 94 percent of Amtrak employees have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (and 96 percent have received at least one dose). He anticipates that if those yet to be vaccinated do not comply with the federal vaccine mandate by January 4, 2022, Amtrak may need to cut service levels temporarily. This is compounded by a dip in the employee roster because Amtrak lost a number of employees due to retirements and a temporary hiring pause during the pandemic.

Cost Sharing

In her testimony, DeMartino discussed challenges related to the 2008 passenger rail law’s (PRIIA) Section 209 Amtrak-state cost sharing formulas. She indicated that under the current arrangement, costs are allocated to her agency “by a broad-based national formula and national operating changes that accrue additional costs are not generally made in conjunction or coordination with state sponsors.” A 2016 GAO report also indicated that the current cost-sharing structure prevents Amtrak from administering clear and consistent information to funding partners.

When asked by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR) how cost sharing can improve relationships between Amtrak and states with state-supported routes, DeMartino indicated that her agency wants to pay their fair share, but sometimes faces challenges understanding which federal costs are built into state costs. She listed costs associated with police services and station costs that are shared with long-distance routes as examples where there is little transparency.

The new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) requires the State-Amtrak Intercity Passenger Rail Committee to update and revise the cost methodology formula by March 2022. In his opening statement, Gardner said, “states need more predictability and control of cost structures,” and indicated that Amtrak is committed to updating the paradigm.

Engaging with the Private Sector

Leveraging private sector rail service providers was a recurring topic of discussion, in particular, determining how private services fit with public networks. In response to a question from Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) on that subject, Kim said he directed Caltrans to enter into an MOU to enable Brightline West, which will eventually connect to the California high speed rail, to use the I-15 median.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) expressed concern that Amtrak has proposed building a publicly-funded line next to the planned privately-financed Texas high speed rail. In response, Gardner indicated that this initial proposal would create connectivity in central Texas. He pointed to other major international cities have interconnected intercity, commuter, and high speed networks that “work together to serve different markets and create overall value,” and stated that Amtrak investments in Texas would focus on feeder areas to serve high speed rail.

In his opening statement, Gardner said that the federal government should get equity and accountability for investments it makes in private services, that new services should make connections with Amtrak, and that key rail laws like the Railway Labor Act apply to new service providers.

Project Delivery

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), citing Amtrak construction delays that affect SEPTA, asked Gardner how Amtrak is managing projects to ensure that SEPTA customers aren’t affected by new work planned under the IIJA. Gardner pointed to Amtrak’s annual comprehensive capital program, which requires all rail stakeholders to develop plans for work and agree on service impacts before projects begin. He indicated that Amtrak is scaling up capacity to complete its work on time.

FRA/FTA Harmonization

Corbett pointed to the need for harmonization between Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration policies. Specifically with respect to advancing Gateway and Portal Bridge timelines in New York and New Jersey, he indicated that “there may need to be legislative fixes to harmonize [FRA and FTA] policies.” (For example, the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the new Hudson River Tunnel was handled by FRA, but the funding is being handled by FTA.)

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) raised the urgent need for commuter rail platforms to be ADA compliant, citing specific cases of concern in his district. There too, Corbett referenced harmonization between the two agencies with respect to the NEC Commission’s coordination with USDOT to set up a grant application process to assist eligible entities with capital upgrades to become ADA-compliant.

Multi-State Commissions

White indicated that the Southeast Corridor Commission has often looked to the NEC for lessons learned. Corbett stated that while there can be a natural tension between service operators and those who execute capital projects, with each successive, planning document the NEC has worked to improve coordination to main reliable service and ease those tensions.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), very vocally interested in improving and adding service in his home state (and specifically on connecting Nashville to New Orleans via Memphis) asked Ross about the efficacy of multi-state passenger rail commissions. The existing three-state compact between Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana works on compacts within and between the three states to work across political administrations to accomplish its work. If Tennessee were to join a multi-state commission, the state legislature would have to vote to join.

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