No fingerprints on NEC track grab

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

Here’s a mystery for you, but don’t anticipate—as in the board game, “Clue”—that it’s “Col. Mustard, in the library, with a candlestick.” The perp here is the U.S. Senate—the deed done under the Capitol Dome and with a pen (okay, a word processor).

As for the “what,” it’s a provision in a Senate-passed bill to extend, for a short distance south, the Northeast Corridor by adding to it track of the Amtrak-owned Washington Terminal Co. that runs from just north of, and south through, Union Station, thence within a tunnel between the Capitol Building and Supreme Court, and ending shortly thereafter at a CSX interlocking.

The Northeast Corridor (NEC), of course, is the 450-mile long, primarily Amtrak-owned, unbroken longitudinal right-of-way linking Boston with Washington, D.C., attracting more covetous eyes than Kim Kardashian or even the Caitlyn Jenner cover of Vanity Fair.

With that knowledge, your challenge is to determine the author and motive of this stealth Senate provision, which we warn you has even highly proficient congressional savants in a quandary—some suggesting sneakiness benefiting a so-far invisible special interest.

If you naively disbelieve anything sinister is afoot in a Congress fueled by political contributions—Capitol Hill’s lawful equivalent of crystal meth—recall that not long ago, the PAC-rich United Transportation Union deftly guided into the nether shadows of a foreign affairs bill an unrelated and malevolent provision forcing the transfer to the UTU of a rival union’s members. When serendipitously discovered prior to a final vote, the provision was removed.

As for this instant provision redefining the NEC—a so-called legislative orphan, as no senator is claiming parenthood—it is slyly buried in a 1,030-page highway bill. While the NEC’s redefinition ignores precise geography elsewhere on the otherwise loosely defined NEC, this provision is meticulous in defining the southern extension, quashing a Senate staffer’s low-wattage illumination of it being “simple legislative housekeeping.”

Let’s begin the gumshoe reconnaissance with Washington Terminal Co., created more than a century ago by the then multiple railroads whose passenger trains stopped at Union Station. Amtrak took title to Washington Terminal Co. in 1981, but unlike Amtrak, which is exempted by law from most Surface Transportation Board (STB) economic regulation, Washington Terminal Co. is subject to STB track-access and rate regulation. Are you getting warm?

Now consider commuter train operator Virginia Railway Express (VRE), whose singular access to Union Station is over tracks of Washington Terminal Co. Were VRE to become embroiled in a squabble with Amtrak over the price of access and midday storage fees for its commuter trains, VRE today would have the option to petition the STB for an order granting compulsory access over Washington Terminal Co. track, and at an STB approved sum.

An implausible event? In fact, a decade ago, after VRE considered firing Amtrak as the operator of VRE commuter trains serving Northern Virginia, VRE was given an ultimatum by Amtrak to renew the contract or cease operating into Union Station (where VRE trains also are stored, maintained and repaired awaiting the reverse afternoon commute). Sources then involved recall that when Amtrak realized VRE was headed to the STB for redress so as to avoid being effectively shut down, Amtrak removed the embargo threat.

Then, in 2010, in yet another fit of pique—this time after VRE actually fired Amtrak as its subcontractor operator of commuter trains in favor of French-owned Keolis Rail Services—Amtrak renewed its threat to deny VRE access to Union Station. Again, cooler heads prevailed and the STB was spared the task of refereeing the kerfuffle.

Should this Senate-passed stealth provision redefining the NEC be approved by the House of Representatives and signed into law by President Obama, Washington Terminal Co. track likely would become exempt from STB oversight, as is all other track comprising the NEC.

Whoa Nelly, that’s pungent bargaining leverage for Amtrak, as it forces VRE into a Quisling-like contract-negotiating stance.

Another curious outcome of extending the NEC south of Union Station would allow a real estate developer access to a low-interest loan from the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program. A separate provision—this one transparently authored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)—opens for loan the RRIF’s $35 billion balance to encourage commercial and residential development along the NEC if a train station is involved. Could this stealth provision be to allow a subsidized Trump hotel and casino to be built in proximity to Union Station, the Capitol Building and Supreme Court?

Pardon our skepticism of a slyly buried legislative provision for which there is no press release, no admitted paternity and at least two plausible special-interest end results. Such is the celebrity of a dysfunctional Congress comprised largely of members often pursing such outcomes. If sunlight be the best disinfectant, it too rarely shines inside House and Senate chambers.

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