Tuesday, October 20, 2015

PTC: “It ain’t over till it’s over”

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PTC: “It ain’t over till it’s over”

The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee has passed H.R. 3763, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, commonly referred to as the “Highway Bill.” Buried deep within the document (p. 504) is language with provisions to extend the PTC deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, with up to 24 months of additional extensions granted by the FRA on a case-by-case basis.

H.R. 3763, described as “a bipartisan, multi-year surface transportation bill to reauthorize and reform federal highway, transit, and highway safety programs,” also includes language “bridging the House and Senate approaches to extending the deadline for U.S. railroads to implement Positive Train Control technology and preventing significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country.”

On a broad scale, among H.R. 3763’s provisions, it “provides certainty for state and local governments to undertake large-scale, complex transportation projects; provides flexibility for states to invest in bridge rehabilitation and replacement; eliminates red tape that slows down infrastructure improvements; streamlines the environmental review and permitting process to accelerate project delivery; provides more flexibility and decision-making to states and local governments to allow them to better address their priorities and needs; eliminates and consolidates offices within the Department of Transportation; establishes a National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau to provide assistance to help state, local, and private sector partners move transportation projects forward; facilitates commerce and the movement of goods by establishing a Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects Program; and promotes private investment in our surface transportation system.”

Slide151These provisions pale in comparison to the PTC language in H.R. 3763, which undoubtedly is overshadowing everything else at this point. Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner explains what this all means, and why, as the late, great New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over”:

“Class I railroads, Amtrak and commuter railroads must, within 90 days of the bill’s passage, submit to DOT (FRA, really) a revised implementation plan. DOT (FRA) has 45 days in which to approve or not approve the revised plans based on the plans meeting certain requirements set forth in the bill. If the plans meet those requirements, DOT (FRA) must extend the PTC implementation date to Dec. 31, 2018.

“During this extension period, railroads must continue to advise DOT (FRA) as to progress, and DOT has authority to extend further the deadline to Dec. 31, 2020 if certain interim safety requirements are met. There is a provision for DOT (FRA) to authorize provisional operation, which appears to mean for purposes of testing and operation over segments prior to full implementation. A separate extension gives Class II and III railroads operating over Class I track what appears to be a blanket three-year extension to Dec. 31, 2018.

“I am told that one of the requirements to gain from DOT (FRA) the additional two year extension to 2020 is to have an employee training program in place and be far-enough along on PTC that it has been installed and is operational on a significant portion of the required total, and that revenue service has begun on those significant portions of PTC-equipped track.

“As for the bill’s likelihood of passage, consider that before it moves to the House floor for a vote—assuming it is approved Thursday by House T&I—it must gain a separate favorable report from the House Ways & Means Committee that has jurisdiction over the highway funding and taxing portion of the Highway Trust Fund (and T&I Chair Bill Shuster acknowledges that is problematic). Only after Ways & Means approval may it move to the House floor.

“Assuming Ways & Means concurs—a difficult assumption at this point—and the bill succeeds on the House floor (remember, this is primarily a highway bill, meaning the highway provisions must find broad support), only then does it go to the Senate. As the clock ticks, any number of stumbles can take place, including an eventual House-Senate conference committee where provisions might be changed. Realize this language is different than currently in the Senate Commerce Committee DRIVE bill.

“Shuster asserts that the PTC language is acceptable to Sen. Thune’s Senate Commerce Committee, so there presumably is a fallback position to move the allegedly compromise PTC language via another legislative vehicle, but the difficulty of finding another vehicle on which to hitch a ride is why this provision is part of the broad House highway bill to begin with. Shuster says he will add the exact same PTC extension language to a short-term highway bill extension that is his fallback if the long-term highway bill fails. The highway extension bill must be passed prior to Oct. 29 to keep the Highway Trust Fund from going belly up.

“Confused? It gets more complicated because a short-term highway bill extension that may be approved by the House in lieu of a long-term highway bill has opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as well as a number of Senate Democrats, among them Barbara Boxer of California, who last week threatened to block any PTC extension language unless and until there is a long-term highway bill.

“Consensus remains that the PTC extension will receive Congressional approval—but just how is what nobody right now can predict. It is further assumed the President will not veto a bill because of the PTC language, although the White House has yet to indicate that. A larger bill containing the PTC language presents another question for the White House.”

Finally, a bit of history, with some perspective on the present day, from Wilner:

“T&I Chairman Bill Shuster is not the dealmaker his father, Bud, was when Bud ran the committee as a fiefdom. Of course, in those days, the House still permitted earmarks on highway bills, which permitted, for example, the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. In exchange for those earmarks, votes were easily purchased, and Bud moved his highway bill. In defense of such mild corruption, both Bud Shuster and the late Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who was the ranking Democrat when Shuster’s Republicans controlled the Committee, rationalized that 5% of the total bill’s costs in the form of earmarks were a reasonable price to pay for compromise and passage.

“It is helpful to realize you are not alone in a state of confusion. Recall former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) trying to explain the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare): ‘But we have to pass the [health care] bill so that you can find out what’s in it.’”

Click HERE to go to H.R. 3763, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, with the PTC language beginning on Page 504 of the bill and extending through Page 522.

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William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.

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