Happening Now

Hotline #697

November 29, 1991

The surface transportation bill now awaits the President's signature. The full House passed the conference bill on November 27, 377-42, and the Senate passed it 79-8.

Of course, the bad news is that the final bill does not include Senate-bill language that included intercity passenger rail as an eligible use of the $24-billion flexible account of the Highway Trust Fund -- the "Surface Transportation Program." We hear that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-N.J.) fought hard to save it, but could not persuade House Public Works Chairman Robert Roe (D.-N.J.). Normally, rail issues like Amtrak fall under the House Energy and Commerce Committee's jurisdiction. But Roe, like many on the Public Works Committee, does not want Highway Trust Fund money to be spent on Amtrak or any other program controlled by Energy and Commerce. This was not a problem in the Senate, but in the House this turf battle was won by Public Works, and the losers are supporters of balanced transportation.

For development of a prototype maglev line at least 19 miles long, there is earmarked $725 million, but only $50 million for a "National High-Speed Transportation Technology Demonstration Program" that could be used for both maglev and high-speed rail, the latter defined as trains going over 125 mph.

A $250,000 UMTA study of a rail link in the Boston Central Artery project got in, thanks to Senator Mitchell (D.-Me.).

Transit still did well, at $31.5 billion -- a healthy figure, but down $500 million that was shifted to maglev. That averages out to $5.2 billion a year, up from this year's $3.8 billion. Transit also is eligible for the Surface Transportation Program and should benefit from the transfer of project selection choices from states to metropolitan planning organizations, and from the fact that $15 billion of the flexible money goes straight to those organizations.

It is unreasonable to provide so much for maglev -- a non-existent transportation mode -- while completely cutting out passenger rail (Amtrak), which serves millions. Look for a good nationally syndicated newspaper column by Jessica Mathews on this subject. It appeared in today's Washington Post.

Please write your Representative and Senators soon to protest this move by Chairman Roe, even if you already called this week. Tell them you are very upset that House Public Works did not include Amtrak in the surface transportation bill, as the Senate had tried to do. Keep up the pressure -- the more the hear from us, the more they will realize that House Public Works made a mistake in letting a petty rivalry with House Energy and Commerce dictate unwise transportation policy.

The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission has voted to continue studying Amtrak as a provider of commuter train services, making Amtrak the leading contender. The contract itself may be awarded in January.

There has been a reprieve for the Chaleur, VIA Rail's tri-weekly train between Montreal and the Gaspe Peninsula. The Canadian Transport Ministry announced on November 25 that it had rescinded an order allowing the Canadian National to abandon the outer 60 miles of the Gaspe line. Pressure from Transport 2000 and Rural Dignity helped block the abandonment. T2000's lawsuit over CN's plan to abandon the Levis line continues.