Happening Now

Hotline #688

September 27, 1991

The present highway and transit authorization comes to an end on September 30. Of course, it will be impossible to finish new legislation by then -- it may take until Thanksgiving. Everything depends on the House, because the Senate passed its bill in mid-June. However, House Public Works staff are not worried about the expiration of the current program, saying there is "enough money in the pipeline" for another 60 days. Speaker Tom Foley (D.-Wash.) has told Public Works that he wants a bill on his desk by October 4.

The process of rewriting H.R.2950 continues. The revised bill will have a six-year life, rather than five, to spread out the money needed for highway demonstration projects. Also, that 2.5 cents of the gas tax increase designated for the Highway Trust Fund as part of last fall's budget agreement would be extended from 1995 to 1998. So even though the House may eventually produce a bill it can pass, the new bill may be even farther away from the Senate bill than H.R.2950 was. We should expect a very interesting surface transportation conference.

In the meantime, we await a DOT appropriations conference. The main difference in the railroad section is the electrification money that the Senate included and the House did not. Discussion of the highway program will be more difficult in the absence of an authorization law. Like the surface transportation authorization, all appropriations expire September 30, but Congress has approved a current-level continuing resolution through October 29. The President has not signed that yet.

NARP Executive Director Ross Capon testified in New York on September 25 at a joint New York State Senate and Assembly hearing on the formation of a High Speed Surface Transportation Commission. Capon warned the state not to rely too heavily on the allure of all-private investment, saying such promises have failed in other states and are doomed to continual failure as long as governmental transportation policies in this country are still tilted toward road and air. He also said incremental improvements to existing rail infrastructure can be quite economical and successful and should not be ruled out. What should be ruled out is maglev, because of its expense, its unreadiness, and its incompatibility with other modes.

New York Governor Cuomo has released a $7-billion development plan for New York City. Included are the Oak Point rail freight connection in the Bronx, which should cut a lot of urban truck traffic, the building of part of the long-awaited Second Avenue subway in Manhattan, and the connection of LaGuardia and Kennedy Airports by some sort of peoplemover in the median of the Van Wyck Expressway. Rather than introduce a new mode, it would be better to link the airports with something compatible with the subways to a through-service from Manhattan can be made.

Illinois Central is again threatening to abandon part of the Memphis-Jackson passenger main line. The only alternative for Amtrak's City of New Orleans is the Yazoo District line through Greenwood, Miss., where most of IC's freight moves, but which is unsignalled and which would add 2:35 hours to the total Chicago-New Orleans schedule. That could be a death blow to a train that already has enough problems. IC will meet with officials from towns along the line from Memphis to Grenada, the segment to be abandoned, to discuss the plan. The meeting will be at the Sardis City Hall, October 3, 10:00 am.

The Amtrak board met on September 23 during their European tour. On-time performance in August was low -- 69%. The worst train was the Pioneer, which did not arrive on-time in Denver or Seattle on any single day in August.

Washington Metro has begun a campaign to convince area federal agencies to provide a transit benefit to their employees. That would begin to offset the parking benefit many of them get. Earlier this summer, the IRS raised the ceiling of how much monthly transit benefit an employee may receive tax-free from $15 to $21. However, that is not nearly enough and there is still a "cliff" effect, meaning that if an employee receives anything over $21, tax must be paid on the whole thing. It is not clear how many agencies will take up Metro's offer, though Brian Clymer has said UMTA will be one of the first. Metro already has an extensive private-sector benefit program.

The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission is seeking proposals for a rail line to connect Los Angeles International Airport to a future regional airport at Palmdale, according to the Journal of Commerce. It is foreseen as a public-private partnership using freeway medians. Proposals are due January 15.

The European Community has proposed a new energy tax designed to reduce Europe's share of the greenhouse effect. Starting in 1993, the tax on a barrel of crude oil would gradually increase until it reached $10. That's about half the cost of the oil itself and would come on top of whatever gasoline tax each country now levies. Some EC members have protested the tax, saying Europe already does more than other places to reduce greenhouse gases. They wondered why the United States, the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases, did not do something constructive first.

The 11th annual Hoboken Festival is October 5, at the Hoboken rail terminal. It is sponsored by the city and by New Jersey Transit. Admission is free; the festival goes from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. There will be equipment displays and rides out to NJT's Meadows Maintenance Facility.

Next weekend is the Union Station Railfest in Meridian, Miss., a town with a long railroad background and the home of Federal Railroad Administrator Gil Carmichael. The event marks the sesquicentennial of the first antecedent of the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad. In a private ceremony on the evening of October 4, state officials will designate the former Railway Express Agency building as a historic landmark. On October 5, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, there will be an Amtrak equipment display and a fair downtown. Carmichael is expected to be a speaker at a banquet that evening.