Durbin: Illinois in Need of Increased Rail Investment Under New Transportation Bill

Asks Committee to reject proposals in House Transportation bill that will hurt downstate Illinois rail and prevent job creation

WASHINGTON, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–January 31, 2012. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin today asked the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to increase funding for job creating Illinois rail and multimodal priorities – including rail line relocation grants, Amtrak and the TIGER grant program – in its bill to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Act.  Durbin also urged the Committee to reject the proposals in the House Transportation bill that would eliminate or dramatically reduce funding for programs that are essential to creating jobs in downstate Illinois communities.

“Illinois – as the road, rail and aviation hub of the country – is in dire need of increased investment to upgrade our aging transportation network.  The next reauthorization can make a significant dent in our infrastructure deficit if we increase investments in transportation,” Durbin wrote.  “Unfortunately, the House of Representatives is pursuing a transportation bill that will cut passenger rail programs.   These policies will make it harder for our nation to achieve a truly multimodal transportation network and I urge you to reject all House attempts to cut passenger, freight and multimodal programs.” 

In today’s letter, Durbin outlined several rail and transit priorities for Illinois including three that are being threatened with elimination or dramatic cuts under the transportation bill recently released by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He has requested the Senate Commerce Committee consider increasing funding for the following Illinois priorities: 

  • Rail Line Relocation Grants: The previous Surface Transportation bill established a capital grant program to provide financial assistance for local rail line relocation and improvement projects.  The rail line relocation program is one of the only grant programs available for communities to mitigate the adverse effects of rail traffic on safety, traffic flow and community quality of life.   This program is important to communities in Illinois, like Springfield and Galesburg, which are undertaking rail consolidation and mitigation projects.  The House Transportation Committee has proposed eliminating this grant program. 
  • High Speed Rail and Intercity Passenger Rail: The investments made in passenger rail included in the Recovery Act have jumpstarted the rebuilding of our aging passenger rail network.  This next reauthorization should strengthen and expand the nation’s intercity passenger rail network.  The best way to improve our passenger rail network is to provide high speed and intercity passenger rail with a dedicated revenue stream similar to those available to highways, mass transit and aviation.  A multi-year commitment of dedicated public investment will spur private investment and support hundreds of thousands of jobs.  The House Transportation Committee has proposed a 25% reduction in funding for Amtrak operating expenses. 
  • TIGER Grant Program: The TIGER grant program allows local communities to apply directly to the Department of Transportation for funding of nationally significant transportation projects.   This new program is especially helpful to communities engaged in multimodal projects that improve connections to different transportation networks.  Several projects in Illinois have been funded under the incredibly popular TIGER grant program including a multimodal transportation center in Normal, the Warehouse District in Peoria, the CREATE project in Chicago and the Tri-City Port in Madison County.  The House Transportation Committee has proposed eliminating competitive grant programs like the TIGER program and instead distributes most funding to the states via formula.  This takes away opportunities for local communities to access funding for innovative, economic boosting projects.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has voted unanimously to favorably report its portion of the legislation.  The Commerce Committee, the Banking Committee and the Finance Committee are expected to act soon on transportation issues under their jurisdiction.

Last year, Durbin sent letters with lists of Illinois priorities to the Environment and Public Works Committee (July) and the Banking Committee (November) which included: funding formulas that ensure a more equitable share of federal highway dollars for Illinois; an extension of the TIGER grant program; mitigation options for communities dealing the negative impacts of increased freight traffic; taxpayer protection in privatization of federally funded transportation assets; programs to improve the safety and efficiency of rural roads; investments in large, aging mass transit systems; investments in transit access to mid-size urban areas and rural areas and an increased investment in the TIGGER grant program, to help reduce environmental impact.

[Text of the letter is below]

January 31, 2012

The Hon. John D. Rockefeller IV                                           The Hon. Kay Bailey Hutchison

Chairman                                                                             Ranking Member

Committee on Commerce, Science and                                  Committee on Commerce, Science  

Transportation                                                                      and Transportation

254 Russell Senate Office Building                                        456 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510                                                         Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Hutchison:

As your Committee prepares its work on a surface transportation reauthorization bill, I bring to your attention important transportation issues I hope you can incorporate into your legislation.  

Illinois is the transportation hub of North America, and this next transportation bill will have a significant impact on the transportation network in my state and the country.   Dozens of non-partisan commissions, studies and academics have outlined the huge infrastructure deficit facing the nation.  Illinois — as the road, rail and aviation hub of the country — is in dire need of increased investment to upgrade our aging transportation network. 

The next reauthorization can make a significant dent in our infrastructure deficit if we increase investments in transportation.  Our economic competitiveness depends on having a transportation network that can move people and goods quickly, safely and with minimal impact to the environment.   Building and maintaining this type of transportation network will require a significant increase of transportation investments over current levels. 

In addition to increasing investments, I respectfully urge you to consider the following issues as your Committee considers a surface transportation bill:

High Speed Rail and Intercity Passenger Rail

The investments made in passenger rail included in the Recovery Act have jumpstarted the rebuilding of our aging passenger rail network.  This next reauthorization should strengthen and expand the nation’s intercity passenger rail network.  The best way to improve our passenger rail network is to provide high speed and intercity passenger rail with a dedicated revenue stream similar to those available to highways, mass transit and aviation.  A multi-year commitment of dedicated public investment will spur private investment and support hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The next transportation reauthorization could be smaller in duration than the most recent six-year reauthorization bills.   I encourage you to enhance the existing discretionary, competitive grant programs for intercity passenger rail if a shorter-term bill makes finding a dedicated revenue stream impossible.

Rail Line Relocation

SAFETEA-LU established a capital grant program to provide financial assistance for local rail line relocation and improvement projects.  The rail line relocation program is one of the only grant programs available for communities to mitigate the adverse effects of rail traffic on safety, traffic flow and community quality of life.   This program is important to communities in Illinois like Springfield and Galesburg, which are undertaking rail consolidation and mitigation projects.

The House Transportation Committee has proposed eliminating this grant program.  I encourage you to provide a robustly funded multi-year reauthorization for the rail line relocation program.  

Freight Rail Program

Our economy depends on the efficient movement of goods via an interconnected system of roads, highways, rail and airways.  The federal government needs a national freight plan to help guide state, regional and local efforts to improve freight movement throughout the country. 

A national freight plan should focus on setting goals and performance measures to improve freight mobility while reducing fuel consumption, improving safety and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.  Lastly, a national freight plan should invest in local mitigation measures to ensure that freight increases do not compromise the safety and quality of life of impacted communities. 

As the surface transportation bill moves forward, I encourage you to retain and expand on the freight language your Committee has already adopted.

Passenger Rail Rolling Stock

The existing fleet of passenger rail cars is old and in desperate need of repair.   Amtrak is experiencing record ridership and will not be able to meet the growing demand due to its aging fleet of locomotives and passenger cars.   In the 110th Congress, I worked with fellow Committee Member Senator Tom Carper on legislation that would accelerate the domestic manufacturing of passenger rail rolling stock.   I encourage you to include authorization language similar to that bill that will help rebuild our existing train fleet and promote building the next generation of trains here in the U.S.

This reauthorization should help domestic manufacturers retool and invest in the production of passenger rail rolling stock.  This reauthorization should also encourage equipment standardization and improve Buy America standards.  These policies will better leverage federal investments, increase manufacturing efficiency and create thousands of high paying jobs.

Amtrak Privatization

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica has introduced a proposal to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.  Severing this corridor from the rest of America’s passenger rail network would put popular corridor service in the Midwest, especially Illinois, in jeopardy. 

Private investment is certainly needed to grow our passenger rail network, but I ask the Committee to reject a wholesale transfer of Amtrak that would dismantle the nation’s rail infrastructure. 

Safety

I encourage you to strengthen safety provisions at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration.

This next bill should address the lessons learned from accidents that have occurred since the last reauthorization and build on the safety efforts currently underway at the Department of Transportation.  Specifically, this reauthorization should build on the successful campaign against distracted driving undertaken by Secretary Ray LaHood.  This bill should also increase passenger bus safety and pipeline safety.  Illinois has recently experienced bus accidents and pipeline leaks that should be avoided in the future. 

On-Time-Performance

Ridership on Amtrak is at record levels.  Amtrak’s annual ridership exceeded 30 million passengers for the first time ever.  This growth could be even greater if on-time performance of Amtrak trains were improved.  Consistent and reliable train schedules are key to attracting and keeping travelers using passenger rail.  

Train delays do not just make passengers late and frustrated, they cost Amtrak money.  The Department of Transportation Inspector General found improving Amtrak’s on-time-performance to 85 percent would result in a $136.6 million net gain for the company.  This level of savings could be used to modernize tracks and upgrade facilities and equipment across the country.  I encourage you to include provisions to improve on-time-performance of passenger trains in your bill.

Taxpayer Protection in Privatization of Federally Funded Transportation Assets

States and local communities are increasingly looking to sell or lease existing infrastructure to fill local budget deficits.  Many of these public assets were built and maintained with federal taxpayer dollars.  I encourage you to require local governments to repay past federal investment before selling or leasing transportation infrastructure built and maintained by the federal government.  It is important for federal taxpayers to receive a return on their investment instead of letting federal funds turn into a windfall for private entities and local governments.

I also encourage you to require greater public participation and transparency of privatization deals involving federally funded transportation assets.  Private interests buying or leasing existing transportation assets should disclose the estimated amount of profit, including tax benefits they expect to receive over the life of the lease or sale of the publicly funded transportation assets.  Similarly, public owners of federally funded transportation assets should give the public ample time to review and comment before transportation assets can be sold or leased.  

I recently introduced the Protecting Taxpayers in Transportation Asset Transfers Act (S.1230).  This bill includes several provisions that would help protect taxpayers when local governments sell or lease transportation assets.  I ask that you consider incorporating these provisions into your bill. 

TIGER Grant Authorization

I joined Senators Patty Murray and Susan Collins in introducing S. 942, the “Transportation Infrastructure Grants and Economic Reinvestment Act.”  This legislation would authorize the TIGER grant program created in the Recovery Act.   The TIGER grant program allows local communities to apply directly to the DOT for funding of nationally significant transportation projects.   This new program is especially helpful to communities engaged in multimodal projects that improve connections to different transportation networks.  I encourage you to work with the Banking and Commerce Committees to include this important program in the next transportation bill.

Rail Traffic Mitigation Assistance for Communities

Shifting more freight to our railways is a cleaner, cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to move goods.  However, this increased freight often brings with it greater noise, vibrations and blocked traffic at grade crossings.  I encourage you to include programs and policies that will help local communities mitigate the negative impacts of increased freight traffic.  

SAFETEA-LU expired October 1, 2009.  We need a long-term transportation authorization that makes passenger rail, freight mobility and safety centerpieces of our national transportation system.  Unfortunately, the House of Representatives is pursuing a transportation bill that will cut passenger rail programs.   These policies will make it harder for our nation to achieve a truly multimodal transportation network and I urge you to reject all House attempts to cut passenger, freight and multimodal programs.  

Thank you for the consideration of my views.   I look forward to working with you to providing our country with a transportation system that will keep us competitive in the 21st century economy.

Sincerely,

Richard J. Durbin

U.S. Senator

Source: durbin.senate.gov