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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

T&I hearing highlights cost of neglecting infrastructure investments


The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) yesterday held its first hearing of the 116th Congress to highlight reasons for investing in the nation's infrastructure.

Chaired by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the committee heard testimony from two panels, which included such speakers as Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson and former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The hearing was being held to sound "the alarm bells" for why investing in the nation's transportation infrastructure can't wait, DeFazio said in a prepared statement.

"We know that our infrastructure investment needs are massive: According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we have an investment gap of $2 trillion over 10 years to fix what we have, meet future needs, and restore our global competitiveness," DeFazio said. "The investment gap in surface transportation alone is over $1 trillion."

DeFazio addressed the economic impacts if infrastructure assets fail.

"The Northeast Corridor Commission estimates that a shutdown of the Northeast Corridor would paralyze the region and have an economic impact of $100 million per day," he said. "If either the Hudson River tunnels or the Portal Bridge failed, it would shut down the Northeast Corridor. These two critical assets as part of the Gateway project cost $14.6 billion to replace; but doing nothing would result in $36.5 billion per year in economic losses if these assets fail."

The Hudson Tunnel project is intended to preserve Amtrak's current Northeast Corridor service, and New Jersey Transit's service between New Jersey and New York Penn Station, Amtrak's Anderson said in his prepared statement.

The project involves design and construction of a new rail tunnel under the existing Hudson River as well as the rehabilitation and modernizing of the existing 108-year-old North River Tunnel.

"The benefits of completing this project are immense – it will preserve existing NEC service, improve reliability, add resiliency and system redundancy, and offer substantial environmental benefits. Not tackling this project invites disaster," Anderson said, according to his written testimony. "A closure of just one tube of the North River Tunnel could reduce capacity by as much as 75 percent and force tens of thousands of commuters and travelers onto already congested bridges, tunnels, and highways in both New York City and New Jersey."

Anderson called on Congress to take action to address the Hudson River Tunnel project — which is part of Amtrak's Gateway program — by passing an infrastructure bill that increases federal funding into existing programs that support intercity passenger rail. Or, Congress should establish new federal policies and grant programs through reauthorization of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act of 2015, which will expire in September 2020, he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the committee's ranking member, said Congress needs to "think outside the box" to find solutions to the nation's infrastructure needs.

"We've got to take a transformative approach," he said in a press release issued after the hearing. "I  hope that Congress and the Administration will work together to address our infrastructure needs, and that includes finding a forward-looking fix for the Highway Trust Fund and reducing the time involved in the project delivery process."

In his prepared statement, Graves suggested that Congress consider a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) program to help address the Highway Trust Fund's financial instability.

Currently, the fund is supported by the federal gas tax, which in recent years has not produced the revenue needed to rebuild and modernize the nation's infrastructure.

"I see [the VMT] as the best way to ensure that everyone contributes to the Trust Fund and helps maintain and improve our surface transportation system," Graves said. "VMT is already being applied at the state level, and it’s time to pursue this solution nationally."

A VMT program could be implemented in a way that would not intrude on drivers' privacy, he added.