The past few months have been a busy time for VRPI. Critical public policy decisions affecting the long-term future of both freight and intercity passenger rail are being made at both the federal and state levels. In an effort to influence the outcome of these decisions in the public interest, VRPI has submitted numerous documents to the respective state and federal agencies in response to requests for public comment. Each submission contains a policy analysis and recommendations pursuant to the mission of the organization.
Whenever time permits, the VRPI Executive Committee invites discussion among the Board of Directors before drafting such documents, or invites their review and comments prior to the final draft. While this has not in all cases been possible (especially recently, when multiple submission deadlines have come in rapid succession), we always attempt to represent what we believe to be the general public interest in a robust and sustainable future for rail transportation and an equitable return on the public's investments in rail programs.
Recent Actions on Rail Public Policy Decisions
Recent actions by VRPI on the compelling rail policy issues of the day include the following:
1. DC2RVA Tier II EIS Alternatives
In the second in a series of opportunities for public input on the DC2RVA High Speed Rail Study (Tier II EIS), the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation held a series of public meetings in December, 2015 to present the preliminary alternatives for rail alignments, track improvements and station locations for the Washington, D.C. to Richmond Southeast High Speed Rail (DC2RVA) project. Public comments were requested to help determine which alternatives will be carried forward for detailed evaluation in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
- In the earlier round of public comments, VRPI filed a detailed analysis and recommendations regarding the selection criteria, route alignments and station locations for further consideration among the many initial passenger rail improvements that could be considered for the project.
- On January 8, 2016, VRPI filed a letter to DRPT in response to the December call for comments.
2. STB Proposed Rulemaking and Policy Statement
In what many passenger rail advocates regard as a high-alert threat to the future of Amtrak services across the nation, the federal Surface Transportation Board issued two proposed revisions to established federal policy regarding the performance of Amtrak trains. The new rules apply to the definition of On-Time Performance of Amtrak trains (Docket EP 726) and the long-standing Congressional mandate that Amtrak trains be given priority over freight trains by the host railroads (Docket EP 728). Read Amtrak's White Paper on these proposals.
VRPI, in the company of dozens of organizations and members of the public, filed letters of opposition to each of the STB's proposed changes.
- The STB proposes to change the definition of On-Time Performance (OTP) for Amtrak trains, from measuring OTP at every station stop along a route to measuring OTP only at the terminating station. In a February 8 filing with the STB, VRPI strongly objected to this change.
- The STB proposes to change its policies governing how the 1973 Congressional Mandate that Amtrak trains be given priority over freight is enforced and how violations of preference are handled. In a February 22 filing with the STB, VRPI objected strongly to these changes, which would essentially strike down by regulation a federal law that has withstood the test of time and been re-confirmed by the USDOT and the Attorney General of the United States.
Other filings opposing the STB policy revisions were made by Amtrak, the Southern Environmental Law Center (on behalf of Virginians for High Speed Rail and other organizations), the National Association of Railroad Passengers, DRPT and others. With so much at stake, we encourage you to submit your own comment to the STB.
3. Canadian Pacific Takeover Bid for Norfolk Southern Corporation
Norfolk Southern Railroad has its corporate roots in Virginia and maintains significant rail holdings and operations in the state, some of which are essential to passenger operations. The recent takeover bid by Canadian Pacific would have major consequences for both freight and passenger rail in Virginia.
On January 27, 2016, VRPI Board Member, former State Senator and Norfolk Southern lawyer Wiley Mitchell, acting on behalf of VRPI, sent a letter to Virginia Secretary of Transportation, Aubrey Layne, expressing VRPI's concerns about "...the substantial risks to the continued viability of many of the facilities in which public funds have been invested" should the merger take place. VRPI also offered assistance formulating protections for the state's investments.
4. NEC Future Study Alternatives
Drew Galloway, Amtrak's Chief of Planning and Performance for the Northeast Corridor, was a guest speaker at VRPI's January Meeting of the Board of Directors and Fellows. Drew spoke of plans to repair and replace aging infrastructure throughout the corridor, particularly the Hudson River Tunnel, which suffers from extensive internal systems damage as a result of Superstorm Sandy.
The FRA recently published a draft of three Action Alternatives, as well as a No Action Alternative, for future federal investments in the NEC, as part of its Tier I Environmental Impact Study . Each of these alternatives is evaluated for its impacts on transportation, the economy, the built environment, and natural resources.
On February 16, 2016, VRPI filed comments on the NEC Future study with the FRA.
5. Revisions to Virginia's Rail Enhancement Fund
VRPI continues to follow the updates being made by the Commonwealth Transportation Board to Virginia's Rail Enhancement Fund. VRPI representatives monitored and provided comments at each of the meetings of the CTB Rail Subcommittee at which the REF was reviewed and proposals developed for revisions to the fund. Of particular importance are the criteria and metrics by which REF project applications are evaluated and project outcomes measured and monitored.
During 2015, VRPI submitted public comments regarding these issues on two occasions,
- Comments of VRPI on the Rail Enhancement Fund raises significant public policy issues arising from the first ten years of the REF.
- Comments of VRPI on Presentations to the CTB Rail Subcommittee in Support of HB1887 responds to VDRPT's presentations of options and recommendations on the three topics of focus.
The CTB adopted several recommendations for changes to the REF and formed a REF Task Force to consider further amendments. VRPI is represented on the Task Force by Executive Committee Member, Dick Beadles. Another member of the Executive Committee, Virginians for High Speed Rail Executive Director, Danny Plaugher, serves on the task force representing VHSR.