House Transportation Committee talks funding for modernizing US railways
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – The House Committee on Transportation subcommittee met Thursday to discuss modernizing railways in the United States. Specifically, the allocation of funds to make improvements to the Amtrak Northeast Corridor route and the construction of California’s high-speed rail project.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the 2010 Omnibus funding bill distributed funds for railroad infrastructure and an intercity and high-speed rail system.
House Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., feels the dissemination of funds for rail improvements has been “scattershot.”
“Rather than investing these funds strategically to achieve specific outcomes, the Obama administration distributed the funds widely, making about 150 grants to 34 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak. The result is that mostly incremental improvements were made across the country,” Denham said in his opening statement.
The congressman also stated that “$1 billion of the $8 billion in ARRA funds” will return to the U.S. Treasury if not spent by September.
Thursday’s hearing was an effort to hopefully prioritize projects that need an increase in funding.
Member of the subcommittee Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said President Donald Trump's budget cuts will take away from these existing projects.
“This is becoming absurd. So, I hope today we can begin to talk today about the real needs of Amtrak and where we are really going to find the investment money that Amtrak needs for the Northeast Corridor and the national system,” DeFazio said.
Amtrak states that more than half of its trains operate at a top speed of 100 miles per hour, according to President and Chief Executive Officer of Amtrak Charles “Wick” Moorman.
In comparison, the Eurostar that travels to the United Kingdom, France and Belgium operates at an average speed of 186 miles per hour, according to the publication Railway Technology. The Italian Frecciarossa 1000 reaches speeds of 248 miles per hour, Trenitalia states on its website.
During Thursday’s hearing, Moorman said Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line accommodates roughly 820,000 passengers a day but needs vast improvements due to damage done by weather and wear and tear over time.
“We would not be good stewards of the assets entrusted to us if we're not planning to rebuild and expand them as needed for the future,” Moorman remarked.
He emphasized that New York’s Penn Station needs vast improvements because it still operates on a 1934 vintage electric traction system within tunnels built in 1910. Those tunnels were closed when they flooded during Hurricane Sandy.
He continued that these infrastructure projects are “no longer nice to have, they have now [reached] the point of must have.”
Both parties in the committee worked together to reauthorize Amtrak funding for five years as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
The act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2015. The act was designed to provide long-term funding for surface transportation infrastructure.
“The FAST Act authorizes $305 billion over fiscal years 2016 through 2020 for highway, highway and motor vehicle safety, public transportation, motor carrier safety, hazardous materials safety, rail, and research, technology, and statistics programs,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The state of California has plans to build its own high-speed rail system that will connect Los Angeles to San Francisco. The cost of the new rail line is about $64 billion.
California High-Speed Rail Authority Chair Dan Richard said they are hoping for the federal government to contribute $20 billion of the $64 billion to begin phase one of the project.
Richard said that California is adhering to the "Buy America" provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He said that 100 percent of the construction materials for the rail system are being produced domestically.
Richard also stressed the need of a rail line from the Central Valley to Silicon Valley.
“That will be a 250-mile stretch from north of Bakersfield up through Fresno and into San Jose and ultimately San Francisco," Richard said. “The [importance] of this cannot be overstated. Right now, in the Silicon Valley, which is the engine of California’s economy and a to a great extent the engine of America’s economy, the house crisis has reached epic proportions. The average cost of a home in the San Jose area is more than a million dollars.”
The hope is the rail will bring jobs and housing balance to the area and cut commuting time down to 40- and 50-minute trips.