Category Archives: News

The Wall Street Journal doesn’t like transit, your grandparents

From the National Association of Railroad Passengers April 18, 2012

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board is extraordinarily adept at finding new and unique ways to be disappointing in their views on transportation.

Let’s look at their Sunday editorial, Why Your Highway Has Potholes:

“What’s missing is any new thinking. Clear evidence of inefficient transportation spending comes from a new Treasury study estimating that traffic gridlock costs motorists more than $100 billion a year in delays and wasted gas. In cities like Los Angeles, commuters waste the equivalent of two extra weeks every year in traffic jams. This congestion could be alleviated by building more highway lanes where they are most needed and using market-based pricing—such as tolls—for using roads during peak travel times.”

The Wall Street Journal goes on to place the blame for the failure of the Highway Trust Fund on public transit (you know an editorial board has veered off track when they start citing figures from Wendell Cox and the Heritage Foundation).

Let that sink in: the problem with the Highway Trust Fund isn’t the fact that Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993, and hasn’t even pegged it to inflation; it’s that it’s spending a portion of the funds on public transit.

That is why the Highway Trust Fund is in trouble. We’re driving less per capita, and we’re using more fuel-efficient vehicles to do the driving.

The Wall Street Journal says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants an America without cars. But while they’re busy beating up their straw-man, sensible Americans are dealing with the real transportation problem: while cars and roads will continue to be the primary mode of transportation, people are sick of being forced into their car for each and every errand and trip. No one at the U.S. DOT really wants to abolish highways, but they are working hard to make sure Americans have options—that communities are connected by more than just highways. And the following counterfactuals provide ample evidence that Americans are ready for choice:

Between 1995 and 2010, public transportation ridership by 31 percent—almost double the 17 percent growth in population.
A recent study done by U.S. PIRG found that from 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle miles traveled by people 16 to 34-years-of-age dropped from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a 23 percent decrease.
Senior citizens often choose transit because it is their last link to the outside world. Almost 31 percent of transit trips in rural areas are made by older Americans.
Transit enriches the lives of senior citizens; 2004 study found that seniors 65 and older who no longer drive—compared with drivers of the same age—make 15% fewer trips to the doctor, 59% fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65% fewer trips to visit friends and family.
As the U.S. population continues to get older on average, this reliance will only increase—Transportation For America estimates that by 2015, more than 15.5 million Americans 65-and-older will live in communities where public transportation is poor or non-existent.

Americans are demanding a balanced approach to transportation policy, and reverting to a roads-only approach will leave too many people stuck in traffic when all they want is to pop out to the store and get a carton of milk.

But even worse, abolishing transit funding will strand millions of men and women who helped build America into a great country. They deserve better.

Click here for the full article, including charts and links

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Poking Holes in the WSJ’s Transportation Editorial

By Janet Kavinoky, US Chamber of Commerce
Free Enerprise blog April 16, 2012

The next time the Wall Street Journal editorial board decides to reprint talking points from the Heritage Foundation they might endeavor in some fact-checking. In today’s Wall Street Journal piece, the editorial board offers a menu of reasons why the federal government shouldn’t be involved in transportation investment including the inequities it creates between states, saying that Western and Southern states get less than they pay in. In reality, from 2005-2009, each and every state received more back from the Federal government than they contributed in user fees to the Highway Trust Fund according to the General Accountability Office. This is because instead of keeping Highway Trust Fund revenues – which are largely derived from the federal gas tax – in line with federal commitments, Congress has chosen to periodically transfer general funds to keep the investments afloat.

Even when the Trust Fund was flush with cash, Western and Southern states generally made out much better in their Return on Investment (ROI) than heavily populated states on the Eastern corridor. While the donor-donee debate captures the imagination of many members of Congress when these laws come up for renewal, the whole argument misses the forest for the trees. The reason for this “inequity” is national connectivity, which in turn supports domestic and international trade, national security, emergency preparedness and interstate mobility – all important national objectives.

We also strongly disagree with the notion that investment in transit is an unserious, utopian enterprise. While the Chamber does not ascribe to most of the Department of Transportation’s livability initiative, we strongly believe that transit is a critical means of addressing congestion and driving economic development in many areas around the country. Addressing congestion is an incredibly complicated challenge that often requires a menu of logistical options. Building roads and congestion pricing are both valuable tools, but so too is transit. From 1995 through 2008, public transportation ridership increased by 38%—a growth rate higher than the 14% increase in U.S. population and higher than the 21% growth in the use of the nation’s highways over the same period. Without public transportation, congestion costs would have been an additional $13.7 billion.

With regard to economic development, every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation yields $30 million in increased business sales and every $10 million in operating investment yields $32 million in increased business sales. It’s no coincidence then, that most of the nation’s major transit operations are situated in areas with heavy congestion and often in close proximity to international ports. Just ask groups like Mobility 21, a business-led coalition that works to advance transportation solutions in Los Angeles and surrounding areas.

While we at the Chamber agree with the Wall Street Journal’s assessment that the federal programs need a great deal of reform and the permitting process needs some serious simplification, we believe the federal government plays an important and necessary role in infrastructure investment. Many of our nation’s conservative visionaries agreed, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. Even today, some of the most vocal opponents of federal spending recognize the importance of transportation investment. Rep. Paul Ryan points out in A Roadmap for America’s Future that transportation is a core government responsibility: “Governments must provide for a limited set of public goods: they must build roads and other infrastructure, foster the protection of property rights, and maintain internal and external security… this ‘core’ government spending tends to foster economic growth.”

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the Chamber would like to see Congress work together to advance a serious bill that eliminates eligibility for expenditures that aren’t in the national interest, focuses dollars on core road networks and freight systems, invests in making commutes faster and more efficient, requires performance management and accountability in state and local decision making, speeds up project delivery, expands project financing options, creates incentives for private investment, and lays the groundwork for a sustainable revenue model that enables investment levels aligned with needs. For the sake of near- and long-term job creation, stronger economic growth, and enhanced U.S. competitiveness, the Chamber strongly supports robust surface transportation reauthorization legislation that addresses revenue shortfalls and includes necessary and urgent policy and program reforms.

Click here for the full posting, including links.

US House clears short-term transportation bill with Keystone pipeline mandate

By Ben Geman, Russell Berman and Keith Laing in The Hill April 18, 2012

Defying a White House veto threat, the House on Wednesday passed legislation that extends transportation program funding through September and mandates construction of a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

All but 14 Republicans, with support from 69 Democrats, voted 293-127 for legislation that falls far short of Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) earlier plan to move a sweeping five-year, $260 billion package.

But Boehner’s retreat serves two crucial tactical and political purposes for the Speaker. It sets up talks with the Senate on the highway bill and keeps the Keystone pipeline — a centerpiece of GOP attacks on White House energy policy — front and center ahead of the November election.

Republican leaders hailed the bipartisan vote as a rebuke of President Obama. Two senior Democrat leaders, Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.) and John Larson (Conn.), approved the measure.

“The House is on record again in support of the Keystone XL energy pipeline — a project President Obama blocked, personally lobbied against, then tried to take credit for, and now says he’ll veto,” Boehner said in a statement. “There’s no telling where the president stands from one day to the next on Keystone, but he knows the pipeline has broad and bipartisan support in Congress and among the American people.”

The House and Senate transportation committee chairmen said they hoped conferees would be appointed quickly.

“The purpose of this extension is that we can hopefully bring about resolution and conference legislation to complete our transportation bill,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday.

A number of key Democrats also said they were supporting the plan as a way to get to a House-Senate conference.

“It appears that the House has finally found the path out of dysfunction junction,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We’ve been there too long.”

The bill creates another clash with the White House over the Keystone pipeline — a project at the heart of the Republicans’ energy agenda and their election-year attacks against the president.

Obama, facing divisions in his political base, has delayed a permitting decision on the project until after the election and threatened to veto the House bill over the pipeline language.

The House vote continues what has been a difficult path forward for transportation program funding, which often has bipartisan support.

Congress last month enacted a 90-day extension of highway programs before it left for a two-week recess, and the Speaker had hoped to use the break as one more chance to win support for the five-year transportation bill he has been pushing for months over objections from his conference.

Yet it was clear as lawmakers returned this week that Boehner had not succeeded.

“If I had my druthers, H.R. 7 would have been on the floor six weeks ago. But there weren’t 218 votes to do this,” Boehner told reporters, speaking of the failed five-year package. “You’ve heard me talk about allowing the House to work its will. It’s not about the House working my will. The House ought to be allowed to work its will. And when it came to this bill, the House decided they didn’t want to vote for it.

“So you have to go to Plan B, and Plan B is on the floor today, and I’m hopeful we’ll be in conference soon.”

The Senate last month passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill with bipartisan support, but House Republican leaders oppose it because it does not contain their favored reforms for highway programs. Boehner wants to link revenues from expanded domestic energy production to infrastructure spending.

The Speaker’s goal now is to win as many reforms as he can during a conference committee negotiation centered on the Senate measure.

The new strategy caught some Republicans by surprise.

Conservatives on Tuesday had complained that they hadn’t seen the new highway extension, and aides and lawmakers said the leadership was not formally whipping support for it.

Ten Republicans voted against the 90-day extension the House passed before the recess, but a few of those members said Wednesday they were open to the latest extension because of the addition of the Keystone provision and plans to initiate talks with the Senate.

“This extension I’m trying to support because I’ve been told this is our vehicle to move things forward, to get a longer-term bill and to get something in terms of an agreement from both chambers,” Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) told The Hill.

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) cited concerns in the construction industry about the uncertainty of short-term extensions, but said he might support the latest House bill because it could lead to a deal with the Senate.

“I think the whole idea here is to force some sort of compromise, where we get something out of it that we wouldn’t otherwise,” Fleming said.

Still, there was widespread doubt that any long-term highway bill was likely to get done before the November election.

“I don’t see how you get a bill before the election, but stranger things have happened,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a critic of the GOP leadership’s initial transportation proposal. “Maybe lightning will strike and they’ll come up with a conference report.”

LaTourette said he hoped a compromise would be “the Senate bill dressed up.”

Similarly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he doesn’t see Congress passing a multiyear bill before the November elections, instead predicting more short-term extensions.

“There will not be a bill before the election,” LaHood said. “I wish I could say we’ll get a transportation bill [in the next six months], but I know we won’t.” He has chastised Republicans for adding what he called unrelated provisions like the pipeline.

Republicans have hammered the White House for failing to approve Keystone, calling it a missed chance to create jobs and boost energy security.

“There is not a more shovel-ready project than the Keystone XL pipeline, period,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Wednesday.

The project is tricky politics for the White House. Environmentalists bitterly oppose the pipeline due to greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil sands and other effects, while a number of major unions back it.

It’s uncertain whether Obama will get a chance to use his veto pen on the final package. The Senate in March turned back an amendment to its transportation bill that would have permitted the pipeline, so the new Keystone provision might not survive the conference negotiations.

But a conference could advance other priorities — including a long-term goal of Gulf Coast lawmakers from both parties.

Both the Senate and House package would steer 80 percent of what are expected to be billions of dollars in Clean Water Act penalties from the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast for restoration.

Click here to read the full article, including additional links.

Eau Claire Chamber: May 7 Luncheon with WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb

Monday, May 7, 2012
12:00-1:15 p.m.
Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce
101 N Farwell St

From the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce: Join us for lunch with Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb as he gives a department update including: the new WI Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, and the MAPSS performance dashboard to track the state’s transportation network in mobility, accountability, preservation, safety and service. The Secretary will also touch on area projects, economic development and answer transportation-related questions. Cost to attend is $20 for members and $30 for non-members (payment in advance is required for non-members). To register, call the Chamber at (715) 834-1204 or use our on-line registration .

Can a 100% Private Passenger Rail Line Turn a Profit?

By Tanya Snyder in DC.Streetsblog March 27, 2012

Public-private partnerships have recently become a popular policy prescription for the prospect of reviving inter-city passenger rail.

But now, a private company is setting out to do it alone – no public support needed. Florida East Coast Industries has announced that it will start operating passenger service between South Florida and Orlando in 2014. They’re calling it All Aboard Florida, and it comes just about a year after Governor Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds to build a far less ambitious 85-mile line from Tampa to Orlando. It’s no coincidence that All Aboard Florida’s 240-mile line also centers on Orlando, the most-visited city in the United States according to Forbes. (Miami is number five.) A Tampa-to-Jacksonville segment could be added on later.

Amtrak has been angling to beef up its Jacksonville-to-West Palm Beach service, just a little north and east of the All Aboard Florida line — also on FEC tracks.

Some observers say the All Aboard Florida initiative is a hopeful sign that inter-city passenger rail has a bright future. Most private railroads focus their attention solidly on freight, where the money is, but that’s beginning to change.

“All of the Class Ones are now getting back into the passenger rail service,” former Amtrak Chairman and CEO Tom Downs recently told a roundtable in Chicago. (Downs now serves as chairman of the North American board of Paris-based Veolia Transportation.) He said Union Pacific is going after Chicago-to-St. Louis service, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Norfolk-Southern both want to run any passenger rail that would operate on their tracks.

So does FECI really think it can make a profit off of passenger rail without subsidies? Its promotional materials emphasize that “the State and taxpayers shoulder zero operating risk – this privately owned rail system will be 100% privately operated and maintained.”

FECI is starting with some significant assets: The 200 miles of track between the two destinations it already owns and operates as a freight rail line. But the company is planning to spend $1 billion to upgrade its existing track and build the remaining 40 miles of track.

The service will take about three hours, according to FECI’s announcement. Driving between Orlando and Miami takes about four hours. The time savings are one good reason to be optimistic that train service could be popular. The $16.70 drivers pay in tolls between the two cities also helps make train service competitive (though FECI hasn’t released ticket prices yet).

Stefan Kamph, blogging for the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, is cautiously optimistic about the new line:

Well, that sounds fantastic. We’re sure the grandmas and Germans at Disney World might be tempted to pop down to South Beach for an extra couple of days. But for one of the pitfalls of operating passenger trains on dedicated freight lines, look to Amtrak: Those trains sometimes have to pull over for hours to let a scheduled freight train keep its timetable.

Which is one reason train service is notoriously hard to make a profit on. Only the dense Northeast Corridor turns a profit for Amtrak – largely because of Acela service, which has the luxury of not sharing track with freight.

Paul Druce, who writes for the blog Reason & Rail, said sharing with freight might not be as onerous in Florida as it is elsewhere.

“I don’t think it will be much of a problem, largely because Florida East Coast runs a very fast freight business,” Druce told Streetsblog. “From what I understand, they normally go up to 60 mph with their freight. It’s mostly double-tracked line, or where it’s not it can be restored to double track. They ride with cab signals and speed restrictions… that allows them to go faster than they normally would be allowed to do.”

The company claims the service “will remove up to three million cars from our roadways annually, mitigating traffic congestion and lowering carbon emissions.” It also promises more than 6,000 new jobs building the line and another 1,000 permanent jobs operating it – “not counting additional jobs from property development around the rail system that could create even more employment opportunities.”

That last part might give a clue as to why FECI is interested in this venture when it will be hard pressed to make back the $1 billion it’s investing in the rail service. Druce speculated that the profits could come not from ridership but from the increased value of properties along the line:

While it would run on Florida East Coast Railway track, the announcement was made by their holding company Florida East Coast Industries which describes itself as a major real-estate owner and developer in the state of Florida. Looking into their holdings, we find one very prominent eight acre parcel in downtown Miami that is especially interesting. This used to actually be the location of the FEC Miami station and skirting the northern edge of the property there remains a single tracked FEC line. It also currently possesses an entitlement for up to 2.5 million square feet of mixed use development.

While this area is certainly valuable enough as is, both due to its inherent location as well as its proximity to Metrorail and Metromover stations, the addition of easily accessible intercity rail connections to the rest of the state greatly boosts that value, especially if developed with an eye towards the tourist trade.

Druce told me that running freight to Orlando on its new line will also be a money-maker.

Transit construction is sometimes financed with taxes and fees on property owners and merchants along the route who will benefit from the line, but FECI isn’t trying to demand anything from other property owners. “Increased tax revenues from rising property values near stations can be applied towards local needs (e.g. schools, parks, public works, police and fire protection),” the company said in its announcement.

William Lindley, writing for the United Rail Passenger Alliance blog, said the All Aboard Florida service is a warning signal to Amtrak:

After years, if not decades, of Florida receiving little satisfaction from Amtrak over new routes, the message is clear:

Amtrak is the middle-man. If you want Amtrak to run a train, you will have to deal with the host railroad anyway, so why not just telephone them directly and eliminate the middle-man?

Everyone will be paying attention to All Aboard Florida to see if it works better than Amtrak. Conservatives will look to it as proof that the private sector can operate passenger trains better than the quasi-governmental, subsidized Amtrak service. Rail advocates looking for any way to bring rail travel into the 21st century will see it as a solution. Even Amtrak, which has been trying to attract private partners, could see it as a hopeful sign that the private sector can make rail lucrative.

Click here to read the full article, including photos and links

Progress on Minnesota passenger rail projects, but funding is limited

By Mike Hicks in the blog Streets.mn April 6, 2012

For the past few years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been facilitating the Intercity Passenger Rail Forum, a monthly-scheduled meeting between policymakers at the state, city, and county levels plus various other organizations who are working on various projects to maintain existing passenger train service and add/restore other lines. Some meetings get canceled if there isn’t much to discuss, though one was held on Monday this week, and I was able to sit in.

The general picture

The funding picture for passenger rail is not very bright this year. The Minnesota House and Senate have included some freight rail projects in this year’s bonding bills, such as money to replace or upgrade highway/rail grade crossings, but there hasn’t been any funding put forth for the Southwest LRT line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. The House had $1 million for the Gateway Corridor along Interstate 94 toward/into Wisconsin (though the Gateway Corridor dropped commuter rail from their study last month). The Senate bill had $5 million in it for the Minneapolis Transportation Exchange, a plan to expand the Northstar and Hiawatha stations at Target Field in order to handle additional commuter, intercity, and light-rail traffic.

For the time being, many projects will have to rely on existing funds or see if they can obtain more money from cities, counties, and the federal government rather than the state.

Northern Lights Express (Duluth)

Bob Manzoline from the Northern Lights Express project said that the Minneapolis to Duluth line is in the final stages of environmental review and plans to release their Environmental Impact Statement for public comment sometime this month. The public will be able to respond to it for about a month, the NLX project will respond to comments, and finally a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) should happen around June or July, meaning the project will be ready to proceed with final design and construction. Some design work has already happened—Most recently, the project has been doing LIDAR mapping (like radar but with lasers) along the route. The mapping project has resulted in some calls to police because it’s been done with black helicopters hovering 300 feet above the tracks, and people have been wondering what’s been going on.

A 6–8 month study is also planned to determine whether the train should simply run straight to the center of Hinckley or divert out to the edge of town to directly serve Grand Casino. A direct connection to the casino would likely bump up ridership, and the study will attempt to find whether the diversion is financially justifiable.

Project officials say they’ll be able to get 30% of the design complete with existing funding.

Zip Rail (Rochester)

The presentation for the Zip Rail line to Rochester was focused around a recent study that said that building the line would provide about $1 billion in economic benefit annually—If true, that would generate $784 million in new tax revenue to the state plus another $1.6 bililon in taxes to the federal government over the first 25 years of operation. The study relied heavily on IMPLAN economic modeling software for those numbers. More direct user benefits in terms of time savings, avoided crashes, and reduced emissions were calculated to save $725 million over 25 years.

Nobody really knows what alignment the Zip Rail line might take yet (it might follow parts of the abandoned Chicago Great Western route which goes down to Dodge Center, it might run closer to U.S. 52, or any number of other paths), so there wasn’t any attempt to try and calculate changes in property values.

The project is still moving forward on its service development plan and is working toward doing an Alternatives Analysis and EIS, some of which can be accomplished with existing funds.

Saint Paul Union Depot

A fairly brief update was given for the Union Depot project in Saint Paul. Things are progressing rapidly and the project is more than 60% complete. Contractors will soon begin paving the parking area underneath the station’s massive train deck between Kellogg Boulevard and Shepard/Warner Road. Tracks should be installed soon (the website for Trains magazine reports that a “first spike” ceremony will be held at the end of April).

Left out of the discussion was the fact that Greyhound Lines has decided not to run their buses to the depot once it opens, opting instead to consolidate into their Minneapolis depot at the Hawthorne Transportation Center. Greyhound still has a small depot on University Avenue near Rice Street, though it will close after May 6th when Central Corridor construction blocks access. Along that block, LRT tracks will shift to the south side of University Avenue (rather than running in the center), which will prevent bus access to the old depot.

Jefferson Lines, which also uses the Greyhound depot in Saint Paul, is planning to operate out of Amtrak’s Midway station for St. Paul customers until the Union Depot opens for service.

Bafflingly (to me, anyway), it turns out that Amtrak is going to continue to use their Midway depot for switching cars and for storage. On most trips, an extra car gets added/removed to handle higher loads between the Twin Cities and Chicago, plus private cars are sometimes added to the train. I’m hoping there’s a good reason for the situation, though I don’t know what the reason is yet.

The Union Depot is expected to fully reopen in November or December.

The Interchange

The Minneapolis Transportation Interchange, a project to expand the light- and heavy-rail platforms at Target Field, is almost ready to begin. Operations of the Hiawatha Line were already changed at the beginning of March so that trains no longer use the tail tracks at the extreme western end of the route. A permit to demolish the Environmental Services Building across 5th Street from the Ford Center is expected any day now.

Funding has been a bit of an issue for this project. There either wasn’t much discussion of money at the meeting, or I just didn’t follow it well enough to write it down, but reports in the Star Tribune have said that there’s roughly a $30 million shortfall on the project at the present time.

There was a mention that some portions of the project might be sliced off and handed to private sector interests who may be able to build on their own (some retail has been planned in the station area).

Twin Cities to Milwaukee/Chicago

There are two distinct but clearly interrelated projects in the pipeline for adding train service between the Twin Cities and Chicago: A short-term plan to add a second daily train between Minnesota and Illinois, plus a medium-term plan to implement 110-mph train service with higher daily frequencies.

An Alternatives Analysis happened last year to select a route for trains reaching up to 110 mph between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee (they’d continue to Chicago, but the study specifically looked at the shorter corridor). Mn/DOT is proceeding on to a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement—at least once they get done responding to all of the comments they got on the AA. They received a lot of messages from people and organizations who wanted the train to go elsewhere, such as through Eau Claire. Nonetheless, Mn/DOT will continue working on the Minnesota side of the route.

WisDOT is not actively participating in that study at the moment but is collaborating on the second daily train. Amtrak is going to conduct a small study with funds from Mn/DOT, WisDOT, and La Crosse County, Wisconsin to figure out how much a second train would cost. There’s also a question about where the train should terminate in the Twin Cities: Saint Paul Union Depot? The Minneapolis Interchange? Should it go farther to St. Cloud? How about one of the Northstar stations in between?

There wasn’t any obvious discussion about the situation at Talgo in Milwaukee. Talgo is a Spanish train manufacturer who moved in to an old automotive plant in the city a few years ago to build trains for Amtrak’s service between Milwaukee and Chicago, and who could eventually build trains for the service to Minnesota. The Wisconsin legislature recently blocked funding to build a maintenance facility for the new trains, which means that two nearly-complete trains may be put in storage once they’re done.

At least one of the new trains had been expected to visit the Twin Cities by the end of June on a demonstration/endurance run, so it’s not clear whether that will happen or not. On Wednesday, Talgo announced that they will start laying off workers on June 3rd. But then again, the recall election for Scott Walker is on June 5th. Anyone have a crystal ball handy?

Northstar

There wasn’t any significant discussion of the Northstar Line that I recall, but there are a few things happening that I should mention anyway.

The Star Tribune recently reported that an extension to St. Cloud won’t happen until the existing line reaches 4,500 daily passengers (it’s only around 2,000 today). A new station is being added in Ramsey which should bump up ridership by around 15%, but that’s still a long way from what’s needed to make the Northstar run the longer distance. A 230-unit residential project will also start construction next to the station next week, and other cities are also working on transit-oriented development zones around their stations, so ridership should keep climbing modestly for a while.

Of course, the biggest complaint about Northstar is its frequency of service. Mn/DOT said at an earlier Passenger Rail Forum meeting that they were submitting a TIGER 2012 grant request to the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking to do a grade-separation of tracks at Foley Boulevard in Coon Rapids (just north of MN-610), which should help with that problem. This project has been submitted before as an attempt to build a third main track in the area and add a station at the Foley Boulevard park-and-ride, which would increase capacity enough to run some more daily round-trips on the line.

However, TIGER grants have been very competitive. The project failed to make the cut under the first round of TIGER grants a few years back. I haven’t been able to find a copy of what was submitted, so I don’t know whether it was essentially the same as the old $99 million request or if it was smaller. (The TIGER program for 2012 is only $500 million for the entire country, so a grant for 1/5th of that money would be unlikely.)

The new Ramsey station should open in November.

So, despite a funding stream that has been choked off quite a bit, there’s a lot going on in terms of future passenger train service in the state. It’s hard to say whether it will all come to fruition, but there will definitely be a few new destinations popping up soon.

Click here to read the full article, including photos and links

Wisconsin kills maintenance contract with Talgo

By Larry Sandler Milwaukee Journal Sentinel April 15, 2012

State officials have canceled a $116 million maintenance contract with a Spanish-owned train manufacturer, escalating a political and legal dispute over two brand-new trains that already have cost the state $71.8 million.

In a letter terminating the contract, a state lawyer also claimed that the costs of testing the trains are rising and that federal officials have found the trains don’t meet standards for accessibility to the disabled.

A spokeswoman for the manufacturer, Talgo Inc., denied the allegations and warned the cancellation could lead to legal action.

Talgo built the trains in Milwaukee to replace aging Amtrak-owned equipment on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha line. The state has agreed to pay $48.7 million for the two 14-car trains, plus $2.5 million for spare parts. A British consulting firm helped oversee manufacturing, for a $6.9 million fee.

A separate deal with Talgo called for the company to service its trains, at an average cost of $5.8 million a year over 20 years, and for the state to provide a maintenance base. The state has spent $11.7 million to turn Talgo’s north side plant into a temporary base and $2 million on planning a permanent base.

But the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee refused to let the state Department of Transportation borrow another $2.5 million to continue planning, effectively killing the $55 million to $63 million permanent maintenance base. Without funding for that base, Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb says he can’t use the trains and must mothball them.

As a result of the legislative action, the Transportation Department no longer can afford to make the payments required under the maintenance agreement and must terminate the deal, department attorney Kathleen Chung wrote in a letter to Talgo President Antonio Perez and his attorneys.

Talgo Vice President Nora Friend said the state can’t back out that easily.

“The department is putting politics ahead of legality,” Friend said. She said the state was “acting in bad faith . . . in order to advance an agenda to kill the train project, regardless of the damage it inflicts upon Talgo, the state and the taxpayers.”

Talgo will initiate the contract’s dispute resolution process, Friend says. That provision calls for mediation, but litigation could follow if mediation fails.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Gov. Scott Walker is showing “a complete disregard for rail.” He suggested the Walker administration set up the situation to avoid purchasing the trains.

A Walker spokesman referred questions to the Transportation Department, where spokesman Brock Bergey said the state is still honoring the purchase contract.
‘Technical difficulties’

Passenger rail was a key issue in the 2010 gubernatorial election, when Walker, a Republican, campaigned against a planned $810 million Hiawatha extension to Madison and Barrett, a Democrat, supported the federally funded line. Now Barrett is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Walker in the recall election.

But Walker’s administration sided with the finance panel’s minority Democrats in backing the maintenance base, which was voted down by his fellow Republicans.

Despite canceling the maintenance deal, the state will pay for testing the trains, Chung wrote. That testing is required under the purchase agreement, Bergey said.

Those tests also are federally required for the trains to operate on U.S. tracks, said Hal Gard, Oregon’s interim rail administrator. Oregon is buying two other Talgo trains and sharing some testing costs, Gard said.

Wisconsin couldn’t sell its trains to anyone else unless the tests were completed, Gard noted. He stressed that he did not know if Wisconsin had any plans to sell the trains. Wisconsin officials have said they did not believe they could find a buyer, and Gard said his state could not afford to buy more trains.

Chung said the state was concerned about rising costs for the testing and about “Talgo’s continuing technical difficulties,” including federal orders to correct accessibility flaws before testing can proceed further. Bergey declined to elaborate, and a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said only that his agency was working with Talgo to ensure the trains meet all requirements.

Friend called Chung’s letter an “inaccurate and intentionally misleading” account of Talgo’s efforts to satisfy conflicting demands from various officials.
Train station renovation

In a related matter, the railroad administration has ruled the state must follow new rules in renovating the passenger concourse at the downtown Milwaukee train station – a decision that could boost that project’s cost beyond its $15 million to $19 million budget.

The concourse is being overhauled primarily to meet federal standards for accessibility to the disabled.

As planned by former Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, the project would have cost $20 million, all of which would have been covered by the $810 million federal high-speed rail grant. But after Walker’s election, that grant was withdrawn, leaving the state to pick up half the cost.

Walker’s administration redesigned the project to trim the price tag. In the meantime, however, the railroad administration issued new rules calling for platforms to be level with train entrances – 15 inches above the tracks, instead of the 8-inch height in the state’s current plans.

In a March 27 letter to Gottlieb, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said the rule applies to any project on which construction starts after Feb. 1, noting the state has not started work on the Milwaukee concourse.

State officials are still trying to resolve the issue with the rail agency, Bergey said.

But a railroad administration spokesman held out no hope of waiving the rules, saying, “The Americans with Disabilities Act is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. FRA cannot grant waivers to rules that would result in the denial of anyone’s civil rights.”

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