Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stimulus package flexibility could benefit rail

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House Democrats Thursday demanded time to review the $789 billion economic stimulus bill crafted by congressional conference committee, but most political analysts still expected both the House of Representatives and theSenate to approve the measure. Should the package hold until President Obama signs it into law, freight and passenger railroads could benefit significantly.

Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, praised congressional leaders for recognizing the railroads’ role as an active agent in the nation’s economic recovery.  “Freight railroads are the most efficient form of ground transportation, moving a ton of freight an average of 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel. We’re glad the negotiators recognize that rail projects will create jobs and improve the environment,” Hamberger said.

The bill includes an estimated $50 billion in funds for transportation projects, with a sizeable portion of those funds eligible to be used by states for transportation projects they deem as priorities, including freight and passenger rail projects. “The additional flexibility provided by this bill gives states the ability to direct the moneyto critical infrastructure projects regardless of mode. When coupled with the funds provided for high speed rail and Amtrak, this bill represents a huge victory for both passenger and freight rail,” Hamberger said.

The bill also provides $1.5 billion, to be awarded at the discretion of the Secretary of Transportation, for projects of national and regional significance. Again, rail transportation projects as well as transit, ports, and highways and bridges are also eligible under this program, a flexible formula that has been weak, or simply lacking, in previous transportation measures.

aar-logo blueWhile flexibility may be firmly established, projects won’t be exempt from environmental laws and other regulations, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has cautioned. “These projects are going to be funded by the book, by the rules and regulations that have been established,” LaHood said after a meeting with transportation officials from U.S. states.

Senators crafting the conference committee version of both House and Senate bills included: Sen. Harry Reid (D.-Nev.); Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.); Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.); Sen. Charles Grassley (D-Iowa); and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). House counterparts included: Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.); Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.); Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.); Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.); and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).