House T&I passes H.R. 3763, PTC extension intact. Now the fun begins

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Oct. 22, 2015 unanimously approved the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act of 2015 (H.R. 3763). Among the STRR Act’s numerous provisions is a minimum three-year extension of the looming PTC deadline.

H.R. 3763 is described as “a bipartisan, multi-year surface transportation bill to reauthorize and reform federal highway, transit, and highway safety programs. The STRR Act helps improve the Nation’s surface transportation infrastructure, reforms programs and refocuses those programs on addressing national priorities, maintains a strong commitment to safety, and promotes innovation to make the system and programs work better. The proposal is fiscally responsible, provides greater flexibility and more certainty for states and local governments to address their priorities, and accelerates project delivery. The bill also extends the deadline for U.S. railroads to implement PTC technology.”

The good news is that T&I approved H.R. 3763 without any amendments to the PTC portion.

Now what happens?

“To put today’s House Transportation & Infrastructure action in perspective with regard to a positive final outcome, think of Navy Seals embarking on a difficult mission,” says Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner. “Today’s T&I action is equivalent to their helicopters taking off. That part was as easy as shopping at Staples.

“Now comes the nail biting. House Ways & Means is the next difficult hurdle, then House floor action, and then agreement in the Senate that comports with the House—and all in a very few weeks. So much can yet go wrong. The real difficulty lies ahead.

“Do I sound pessimistic? Does a commander authorize a mission not thought to have probability of success? I remain optimistic. Failure will not be because there is lack of broad bipartisan support. Failure will be because something ‘expected’ broke down or because of something entirely unexpected.”

(For additional perspective on what lies ahead in the Senate, click HERE.)

So far, only Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has voiced objection with today’s T&I action. “Until the Senate becomes involved, recognize that Blumenthal is playing politics,” observes Wilner. “He has not made any noise that he would try to block Senate action. In terms of official Washington, that lack of a specific threat is significant.”

As reported by The Hill newspaper:

“Critics of giving railroads more time to implement [PTC] are unimpressed with the details of the compromise proposal. ‘This five-year extension of life-saving technology is way too long, with way too little guarantee that PTC implementation will get done,’ Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement. ‘A short-term patch of highway funding should not be the vehicle for such a profoundly important measure,’ he continued. ‘I will work for a reasonable measure that provides adequate time but holds railroads accountable through year-by-year review of progress toward fully implemented PTC.’”

“Lawmakers have been feeling pressure to move the [PTC] deadline because several railroad companies, including Amtrak, have threatened to shut down service at the end of the year unless Congress relents on the mandate,” the Hill concluded.

“PTC EXTENSION CHUGS ALONG” Politico reported on Friday morning, Oct. 23. “[House T&I Chair Bill] Shuster said he wants to move the PTC extension tucked inside the House highway and transit bill as soon as possible. [T]he chairman’s desire of course means the deadline extension will likely have to be decoupled from the long-term bill and pushed through Congress solo or attached to a short-term highway and transit extension. ‘I believe we need to move that next week because the railroads have already said by the end of the month, if we don’t do something, they’re going to … stop shipments of product and also passenger rail,’ Shuster told reporters in a post-markup huddle.

“Holding out: [Sen. Barbara] Boxer (D-Calif.) is still trying to ensure lawmakers don’t relieve any pressure for passing a multiyear transportation funding bill by completely solving the PTC problem with this short-term policy measure they need to pass next week. But the senator seems to have a new caveat. [T]he senator said Thursday that she could support a short-term extension of the PTC deadline, but reiterated she won’t back a long-term grace period unless it’s part of a six-year transportation bill.”

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