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Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

Terrorism aftermath places congressional cloud over railroad-related bills


With the recent emergency airline funding bill and defense-related measures on their agenda due to the events of Sept. 11, Congress has placed on hold any legislation Capitol Hill members deem controversial.

For railroads, that means The Railroad Retirement and Survivors' Improvement Act of 2001, as well as bills that sought to reauthorize Surface Transportation Board and railroad safety, and repeal the federal 4.3-cent fuel tax, according to American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association's (ASLRRA) Sept. 24 newsletter.

However, ASLRRA officials believe two passenger rail proposals — only one of which has been introduced to Congress — have a chance to gain Capitol Hill attention by year-end because the airline industry's current state created a small opening for such legislation.

The High Speed Rail Investment Act that entered the House June 27 would authorize bond financing of up to $12 billion over 10 years. Proceeds would be used to upgrade rails, build high-speed lines, purchase high-speed rolling stock, and eliminate or improve grade crossings.

Interest on the bonds would be paid through a credit against the federal tax liability of the bondholder. The concept was created in part to place the bill under the jurisdiction of tax writing committees as opposed to transportation committees, where there's opposition to this subsidy level, said ASLRRA.

A second bill — drafted but not yet introduced by Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R.-Alaska) — would provide up to $71 billion in federal funds for high-speed passenger projects, including an additional $7 billion in loan authority for short-line Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program-qualifying projects.

ASLRRA officials believe the bill — which would be funded through state-issued tax-exempt bonds — is written in such a way that it would be referred to the T&I committee. Also, since Amtrak played an increasingly larger role in moving passengers in the wake of the terrorist attack, "there is some momentum building in Congress for doing 'something' for Amtrak," said ASLRRA.<

For now, ASLRRA officials plan to position the Railroad Track Modernization Act of 2001 — which would authorize capital-grant appropriations of $350 million each year for three years for short-line and regional track projects — in a way that might enable the legislation to be included in any passenger bill that moves along in Congress.

"If the Amtrak bill goes through the T&I committee, we might have a chance," said ASLRRA officials.