PASSENGER RAIL UPDATE: Policy Play: State and Local Governments Voice Growing Support for Passenger Rail

In recent weeks, several states and cities have launched efforts aimed at growing passenger rail nationwide and encouraging funding for various rail projects at the state and federal level.  Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 238 creating a new taxing district to support passenger service from Fort Collins to Pueblo with connections to Wyoming in the North and New Mexico in the South.  The bill provides funding for start-up costs for the line. 

In Northern California, the Link21 program aims to “transform Northern California’s passenger rail network into a faster, more integrated system.”  The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority and the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) hosted a virtual workshop on July 15 to get public input on the project. 

On July 28, representatives of Montana’s Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority met with local lawmakers in North Dakota to discuss the possibility of resuming rail service in the area.  According to the Bismarck Tribune, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is working with the Rail Passengers Association to conduct a socioeconomic study regarding the restoration of passenger rail in Southern Montana and parts of the upper West and Midwest. 

A group of eleven Arizona Mayors sent a letter to the Arizona Congressional delegation last week expressing their support for Amtrak’s proposal for passenger rail service connecting Tucson and Phoenix.  The proposed service would include three daily round trips – lasting approximately two and half hours each way - between the two cities.  Amtrak projects that 200,000 riders would utilize the Tucson-Phoenix service each year, generating $77.7 million in revenue.

Finally, seven passenger rail organizations joined forces to create the Lakeshore Rail Alliance with the goal of increasing mobility along the Lake Shore Corridor between Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York.  All Aboard Erie is the host of the coalition due to its central location between the Midwest and East Coast.  The other members of the coalition are the Empire State Passenger Association, the Chicago-based High-Speed Rail Alliance, the Indiana Passenger Rail Association, the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association and the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association.  The group will work to acquire funding for passenger rail in the corridor. 

Surface Transportation Board Institutes Proceeding on Restoring Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Service

On August 6, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) issued a decision instituting a procedural schedule to consider Amtrak’s request to reinstate two daily passenger round trips between New Orleans, LA, and Mobile, AL (Gulf Coast Service) over lines owned and used by CSX and Norfolk Southern (NSR). Amtrak suspended passenger service on the line in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina and the storm’s extensive damage to the corridor’s rail infrastructure. The STB denied the Class I railroads’ joint motion to dismiss Amtrak’s application, denied Amtrak’s request for an interim order, and assigned an Administrative Law Judge to address all discovery matters and initial resolution of discovery disputes.

In the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act in 2015, Congress directed the creation of the Gulf Coast Working Group (GCWG) to evaluate a number of issues including all options for restoring intercity passenger rail service in the Gulf Coast region. The GCWG included representatives from Amtrak, CSX, NSR, the Federal Railroad Administration, Southern Rail Commission, Departments of Transportation of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida, regional transportation planning organizations, and municipalities along the proposed route. The GCWG issued a report in 2017 recommending the restoration of long-distance passenger service between New Orleans and Orlando, and one daily state-supported round trip between New Orleans and Mobile. The GCWG report also contained recommendations for infrastructure improvements estimated at about $100 million to accommodate the revived service. Despite continued study and discussion among Amtrak, CSX, and NSR since the GCWG issued its report, no plans for service resulted from those efforts.

Amtrak filed its application on March 16, 2021, requesting that the STB order CSX and NSR to accommodate the Gulf Coast Service, and CSX and NSR filed their motion to dismiss on April 5. On May 10, the U.S. Department of Transportation weighed in with a letter from Acting General Counsel John Putnam urging the STB to approve Amtrak’s application. The STB’s decision to institute a proceeding is a step towards that goal for Amtrak, with discovery and presentation of evidence to proceed throughout the fall. The discovery period concludes on September 20, CSX and NSR must produce opening evidence no later than October 20, with Amtrak’s reply evidence due on November 19 and rebuttal evidence from CSX and NSR due on December 9. Proposals on the format for the hearing are due on December 16, with further scheduling pending a subsequent decision.

La Guardia AirTrain Receives FAA Approval

On July 20, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a Record of Decision allowing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Port Authority) to proceed with their proposal to construct an elevated fixed guideway system linking La Guardia Airport with the New York Subway in Queens and Long Island Railroad.  Supporters say the AirTrain will allow travelers to go from Midtown Manhattan to La Guardia in just 30 minutes.  The cost of the project is estimated at $2.1 Billion.  The Port Authority has already issued a request for proposals to design, build and maintain the La Guardia AirTrain and indicated that they will choose a winning bidder by mid-2022. The Final Environmental Impact Statement on the project was released May 19, 2021. 

STB Accepts CSX Transportation’s Application for the Acquisition of Pan Am Systems

After rejecting CSX’s initial application for its merger with Pan Am Systems as incomplete, on July 30, the Surface Transportation Board accepted CSX’s most recent, comprehensive application for the merger.  CSX’s revised application sought to satisfy the Board’s concerns about the market analysis portion of the Application. 

The Board’s decision accepting the application sets for the procedural schedule for the merger going forward.  Anyone wishing to participate in the transaction must file a Notice of Intent to Participate by August 20, 2021.  Descriptions of anticipated Responsive and Inconsistent Applications are due by August 27, 2021.  Any comments, protests, request for conditions, and other evidence or arguments in opposition to the Revised Application are also due August 27.  Responsive and Inconsistent Applications are due September 28, 2021 and responses to comments or other filings are due by October 18, 2021.  Final briefs are due January 2, 2022 and the Board will use a final decision by May 1, 2022.  The Board’s procedural schedule leaves open the possibility of a Public Hearing on a date to be determined.   The Board explained, “[t]he Board will decide whether to conduct a public hearing, which would be held between the filing of rebuttals and final briefs, in a later decision after the record has been more fully developed.” 

In addition to these procedural findings, the Board also preliminarily determined that an environmental and historic review for the proposed merger is not warranted because “based on the current record, it does not appear that the thresholds triggering an environmental review would be met, and there is nothing in the available environmental information to indicate the potential for significant environmental or historic impacts resulting from the proposed merge transaction.”  As such the Merger classifies for a categorical exclusion from the environmental review processes pursuant to 49 C.F.R. 1105.6(c)(1)(i).  

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