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Dem and GOP Senators Seek More Long-Term Rail Vision From Obama Aides

The senior Democratic and Republican senators in charge of setting
annual transportation spending levels today urged the leader of the
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to develop a more comprehensive
plan for using the White House's high-speed
rail program
to spur the development of viable U.S. train networks.

Amtrak_CEO_Appears_Transportation_Committee_rBprScbOQTcl.jpgFRA chief
Joseph Szabo (l.) and Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman (r.) both testified
today. (Photo: Getty)

The chairman of the Senate appropriations committee's transport
panel, Patty Murray (D-WA), hailed the Obama administration for breaking
from its predecessor by strongly supporting rail investments.

But she also questioned the absence of an FRA budget request for
implementing the anti-crash technology known as positive
train control, and she advised rail chief Joseph Szabo to provide more
of a long-term vision for leveraging the $10.5 billion Congress has
approved since last year to develop high-speed and intercity rail.

"This committee is a strong supporter
of infrastructure spending, but
we have to set strong priorities and make sure that the money's going to
be consistently there," Murray told Szabo. "To get
a request this year to fund it but not [be] sure what's going to happen
next year, I don't think
that's going to be enough."

Her GOP counterpart on the panel, Kit Bond (MO), was considerably
more harsh in assessing the FRA's lack of a full-scale national rail
plan. The agency has
an initial document outlining its priorities, but a final
version is not expected until later this year.

Until that more detailed rail development proposal is released,
Bond told Szabo, "it would be irresponsible for the committee to give
the [administration's] high-speed rail plan any additional funds. ...
Rail supporters have to know there are limits to these [budget] requests
even in the best of times."

The FRA and Amtrak submitted separate budget requests for the
fiscal year that begins in October. While the former sought $1.6 billion
for Amtrak, the government-supported train company itself asked
Congress for $2.2 billion. Szabo assured Murray that the
administration's smaller request would not force any service cuts on
Amtrak, which is poised
to set
a ridership record this year.

Still, Murray appeared skeptical of the level of detail included in
the budget document, warning Szabo that infrastructure firms "really
have to believe Amtrak is going to be a
reliable source of funding" in order to make federal spending on
inter-city rail modernization  a driver of domestic manufacturing

On the positive train control (PTC)
front, Szabo indicated that the FRA expects freight and passenger
railroads to bear most of the cost burden of its recently adopted
requirement for installing the new systems. Congress
$50 million in grants to help expedite PTC upgrades, but
some freight companies are
openly challenging
the economic value of the new FRA mandate.

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