Amtrak News Updates from Amtrak Conductor Dave Bowe.
THIS WEEK FROM WASHINGTON & BEYOND for SATURDAY AUGUST 9th [THE UPDATE FOR AUGUST 1st is INCLUDED IN THIS ISSUE] 1) A fight between labor and congressional republicans threatens to bankrupt Amtrak by January unless President Clinton acts independently. The key question is whether the Congress and the President can agree this year on an Amtrak Reauthorization Bill. Only if such a bill is enacted can Amtrak receive the big $2.3 Billion capital funds which is part of the final budget reconciliation package. The budget package language replaces Senator Roth's original "half-cent" language but provides the same amount of money. Knowing how hard it is to pass a separate Senate Amtrak Reauthorization Bill, Senator Roth tried hard before going on recess to make a deal with the White House to put Amtrak reauthorization into the budget package, too. Roth got fellow republicans to agree to compromises on A) liability reform, B) on the Amtrak Board of Directors provisions, and C) on the Senate "Shutdown Commission". He offered something President Clinton wants very much -- relating to Caribbean trade issues, if Clinton would agree to the Amtrak Reauthorization. But Clinton refused to agree to the labor reforms that republicans see as vital even though labor itself supported these options in an identical bill two years ago, and even helped to write them. Under the budget package, Amtrak would get $2.3 Billion in the form of tax refunds from the IRS: two equal amounts in January 1998 and 1999. So enactment of reauthorization anytime this calender year would let Amtrak receive the badly needed capital infusion. However time is short and there is such bad-blood over this issue the outlook is "mixed" at best. Republicans might not return to the new compromises they offered the week of July 28th. Indeed the House Transportation & infrastructure Committee (T&I) on July 31st passed an Amtrak Reauthorization Bill - HR.2247 without those compromises. Moreover, the AFL-CIO Wednesday July 30th wrote to President Clinton attacking Amtrak President Tom Downs because he supports the labor reforms that are included in the Reauthorization Bill. 2) The Senate approved S.1048 - the Transportation Appropriations Bill with a 21% increase for highways, and 16% increase for airports. A House/Senate conference is expected after Labor Day but staff work will start sooner. The key problem for Amtrak is getting the full $142 million for excess mandatory railroad retirement payments. The House bill is $61 million short there. The Senate bill has the full amount only because it was forced in committee on to the unsympathetic chairman- Richard Shelby (R/AL). Conferees must keep that money which the Senate approved in the final bill. 3) Sponsorship on HR.1437 - the House "half-cent"bill has reached 81 cosponsors as of August 1st. While the bill itself will not be passed, all the efforts made to get House cosponsors was still useful in getting the $2.3 Billion in Amtrak funding in the final budget package. 4) Though he signed the tax and budget bills earlier the week of August 4th, President Clinton still has a few days to use his line-item veto powers on individual items. There was one wire story on Thursday August 7th from the Associated Press that got repeated by several newspapers and radio stations saying that Clinton was considering vetoing Amtrak. However, a second AP wire story went out Friday at noon quoting White House officials directly. They said Clinton does not oppose the $2.3 Billion in Amtrak capital spending. 5) The ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) Reauthorization process has been pretty much stalled all summer long. That was still the case in the Senate leading into the summer recess that began August 2nd. But there was a little movement in the House the last week of July. House T&I Chairman Bud Shuster (R/PA) and other committee leaders met and agreed to a general outline for a House bill. It would be a three-year bill, but drawing down (aka spending) all five years worth of budget authority contained in the 1997 budget agreement. It reportedly would retain ISTEA's present structure. Committee leaders have left staffers with instructions for drafting a bill which should be ready for general review by the last week of August. [It should be noted here the the present ISTEA law does not have any provision for states to use this money to sponsor intercity passenger rail (Amtrak) service. Senators Roth and Biden (R/DE) have in the past tried to include "flexibility" language, thus allowing states to spend part of their gas tax revenue for passenger rail, but have not succeeded. This law is totally separate from the "half-cent" legislation pending on Capitol Hill.] Shuster hopes to have the subcommittee mark-up the second week of September and full committee mark-up the third week. That doesn't have much time for final enactment in the House much less the Senate by ISTEA's September 30th expiration. However, there was a similar gap back in 1991 when ISTEA legislation was not signed by President Bush until December of that year. It is important that members of the House T&I committees understand that they need to give states the power to spend federal transportation money in intercity passenger rail. 6) House T&I Committee member Jay Kim (R/CA) has pleaded GUILTY to misdemeanor violations of campaign finance. Kim was brought to the chairmanship of the Railroad Subcommittee replacing Susan Molinari (R/NY) who has resigned. Some viewed that with apprehension since Kim has often said he had no use for Amtrak and that Maglev trains and supposedly private highways can do it all. A misdemeanor is not enough to keep Kim from being railroad chairman but the Journal of Commerce also has said Kim has said he would not necessarily be guided by party leadership on issues the subcommittee would face. That could keep him out of the job. The paper also reported that Bob Franks (R/NJ) and Jack Quinn (R/NY) are interested in the job. 7) The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) had rejected arbitration for it's contract talks with Amtrak and so on Tuesday August 5th, the National Labor Relation Mediation Board suspended its mediations between the two parties. This starts a 30 day cooling-off period. Starting September 5th, A) the workers could strike, B) Amtrak could impose new work rules, or C) the President could appoint a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to study the dispute for another 30 days. 8) Amtrak is warning passengers using Union Station in Los Angeles that several adjacent streets will be closed on and off from the period August 25th to September 4th because of a downtown car race that will be held. 9) Amtrak has announced that it will run the TEXAS EAGLE indefinitely beyond September 30. 10)The SOUTHWEST CHIEF, traveling at 90 mph through the Arizona desert, derailed Saturday August 9th as it passed over a flood-damaged bridge. About 100 people were injured, only one seriously. There were no fatalities. Heavy overnight rain apparently scoured away the ground around supports for the trestle, causing it to collapse under the weight of the Chicago-bound SOUTHWEST CHIEF shortly before dawn. The low trestle bridge went over a wash -- flood-prone low ground that is normally dry much of the time, said Jim Sabourin, a spokesman for Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, the railroad that owns the track. Regards, Dave Bowe Amtrak Conductor Boston (UTU1462@AOL.COM)