WASHINGTON — Since its creation four decades ago, Amtrak has perennially teetered on the edge of financial extinction, annually fighting down to the wire for minimal funds to keep it operating.This year is no exception. And while UTU member and retiree phone calls — along with tens of thousands of others from Amtrak supporters nationwide — helped defeat an Amtrak-killing effort in the House of Representatives Feb. 17, the assault on Amtrak continues.

And as one should always expect a train at a highway-rail grade-crossing, we should always expect a congressional assault on Amtrak.

Indeed, there are those who do NOT love a train; but there are far more who do.

Limiting the ability of those in lawmaking authority to kill Amtrak — or so severely hobble Amtrak that death would follow — is a perennial effort requiring vigilance and education.

For rail employees — freight and passenger — this is a matter of job survival and family financial security.

This is because Amtrak’s survival means more than jobs for 20,000 Amtrak workers.

It means survival of Railroad Retirement.

Without Amtrak — and its workforce that numbers 9 percent of all active rail workers — Tier II of Railroad Retirement would suffer the same fate as Amtrak. Railroad Retirement Tier II cannot remain solvent should 20,000 Amtrak workers disappear from the employment roles and participation in Railroad Retirement.

Thus, Amtrak’s survival is as important to all active and retired rail employees as it is Amtrak’s current workforce.

Here are points of light for rail employees to communicate to lawmakers:

  • The high cost of fuel, along with traffic and airport congestion, is drawing travelers back to trains for commuting and travel between cities as much as 500 miles apart.
  • A Pew Research poll found that the number of Americans who enjoy driving fell by 10 percentage points over a recent 15 year period — and highway traffic congestion, rather than higher fuel prices — was the reason.
  • The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials predicts that by 2020, some 90 percent of urban Interstate highways will be at or exceeding capacity.
  • Philadelphia officials estimate 50 additional flights daily would be needed to handle Amtrak passengers arriving and departing from that city.
  • Federal transportation officials estimate that without Amtrak service into Manhattan, 20 additional highway lanes, 10 new tunnels under the Hudson River and hundreds of acres of new more parking would be required.
  • Civil engineers estimate that two railroad tracks have the capacity to carry as many people each hour as 16 lanes of highway; and 300 miles of railroad use less land than a single commercial airport.
  • Railroads require less land than new highways and airports, they are less expensive to construct, they are more fuel efficient than highway or air transport, they are environmentally preferable to all competing forms of motorized transportation, and they are notably safer than highway travel.

To communicate these points to your elected lawmakers, click on the following link, and then type in your address and zip code to receive the name and direct office phone number of your elected lawmakers in the House and Senate:

www.contactingthecongress.org/  

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is pushing for a six-year, $53 billion investment in high-speed, higher-speed and expanded passenger rail service, but a fight is brewing with congressional Republicans.

An initial $8 billion in funding for these rail projects is expected to be included in the president’s fiscal year 2012 budget request that will be transmitted to Congress next week.

Vice President Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lifted the curtain on the proposal Feb. 8 at a Philadelphia press conference, announcing the Obama administration wants the $53 billion focused on three areas of development:

  • Core express that will develop electrified high-speed trains operating between 125 and 250 mph on dedicated track reserved for these trains.
  • Regional trains that will operate between 90 and 125 mph.
  • Emerging rail where trains will operate up to 90 mph — intended to expand rail service to regions of the nation not currently served.

No specifics were provided.

Said Biden: “As a longtime Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced.”

Republican leaders were quick to respond — and not positively. Congressional approval of the Obama administration rail plan must begin with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), and the chairman of the Rail Subcommittee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), called the administration’s rail plan equivalent to “giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.” Madoff is serving a 150-year jail term, having been convicted of what was called the largest investor fraud in U.S. history.

Mica and Shuster criticized the Obama administration’s rail policies, alleging “the Federal Railroad Administration is neither a capable grant agency, nor should it be involved in the selection of projects.”

They said that what the Obama administration so far has “touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere.”

Mica said he would prefer federal money to be spent on the federally owned Northeast Corridor, operated by Amtrak, which he called “the most congested corridor in the nation.” The Northeast Corridor connects Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Federal spending on passenger-rail projects, some of which will benefit freight railroads, is part of a broad jobs-creation initiative of the Obama administration. In his State of the Union message in January, Obama spoke of providing high-speed rail access to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years.

During 2010, the administration, through the Federal Railroad Administration, awarded $10.5 billion in federal grants to 15 state for rail projects. Two of the states — Ohio and Wisconsin, both with Republican governors — rejected the federal money, saying their states couldn’t afford to pay for the bulk of the projects’ costs and the expected future operating subsidies.

Included in the $10.5 billion grants in 2010 was $2.3 billion toward a $40 billion, 800-mile California high-speed rail project intended to link Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego; and $1.25 billion toward a $2.3 billion, 84-mile Florida high-speed rail project intended to link Tampa with Orlando (and, eventually, Miami). Mica, from Florida, has not opposed that Florida project outright, but said he wants to see the private sector commit at least $300 million to the project before it moves forward.

Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) have reintroduced legislation this Congress that would lasso railroad pricing power.

S. 49, introduced by Kohl, would repeal some of the railroads’ antitrust exemptions.

S. 158, introduced by Rockefeller and co-sponsored by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, would increase the size of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (which regulates railroad rates, service, mergers, and abandonments) and require the agency to be more sensitive to captive rail shipper complaints.

Similar bills failed even to reach the Senate floor during the previous Congress.

WASHINGTON — Two friends of labor — Democratic Senators Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) — say they will retire at the end of the 112th Congress in 2012. Conrad is completing his fifth six-year term; Lieberman completing his fourth six-year term.

These announcements follow the retirement announcement of Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, who said she will retire in 2012 when her third six-year term ends. The Senate Commerce Committee has oversight of many rail, transit, air and bus issues. She is considered a moderate Republican.

Retired UTU member Tom Berry (Local 528, Chicago) has been endorsed by the Texas Democratic party to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in November, representing the Fifth Congressional District in Texas, which includes portions of Dallas.

It will be an uphill battle. His Republican opponent, four-term congressman Jeb Hensarling, won with 84 percent of the vote in 2008.

Berry is running on a platform in support of health care reform and in opposition to privatization of Social Security.

Berry retired from Union Pacific in 2006. He served five four-year terms (1971-1991) as Local 528 chairperson, and also served as UTU’s Illinois state legislative director.

To learn more about Berry and his campaign, click on the following link: http://www.TomBerryforCongress.com

WASHINGTON – The UTU and 30 other trade unions have jointly written members of Congress in opposition “to any proposal” that would pay for health care reform “by altering the tax treatment of employer-provided health care.

“We believe this would be a step in the wrong direction that could jeopardize the overall reform effort,” wrote the 31 trade unions.

“Over 160 million Americans receive their health coverage through the workplace, either as an employee, dependent or retiree. Both Congress and the president have said health care reform will build on what works and have assured Americans they can keep the coverage they have if they like it. This makes good political and policy sense.

“Eliminating or capping the tax exclusion for employer-provided health care benefits – based on income, the premium level or a combination of the two – would threaten to undermine this primary source of health care coverage for most Americans.

“First, it would remove a key incentive that employers have in providing the benefit. This could lead employers either to change substantially or eliminate health care plans.

“Second, if workers have to pay what amounts to a tax increase at possibly both the federal and state levels, that could lead younger, healthier workers to pass up employer-sponsored coverage for less comprehensive plans. This would drive up the cost of coverage for older, less healthy workers, leading to the unraveling of employer-sponsored coverage.

“Contrary to the arguments put forward by proponents of proposals to eliminate or cap the tax exclusion for employer-provided health care benefits, this would not be an effective means for containing health care utilization and costs and curbing so-called “Cadillac” health care plans.

“Instead, it would simply penalize persons who happen to be in plans that have higher costs because of factors beyond their control – that is, plans with more older workers, plans covering geographic areas with higher costs or plans sponsored by small businesses that have higher administrative costs.

“Over the past several years, almost all of our members have sacrificed wages in bargaining in order to keep decent health care coverage. These hard-working people are already in immense economic distress. Imposing what amounts to a tax increase upon them is unfair and very unpopular.

“In 2009, a national survey done by Lake Research Partners, shows that 80 percent of likely voters said they are opposed to taxing health benefits. The president campaigned against eliminating the tax exclusion of health care benefits and the public overwhelmingly agreed with this position.

“It’s obvious the American people want health care costs lowered, not increased. They expect the Congress to make coverage more affordable, not less. Any result to the contrary may undermine their support for the program.

“For all the foregoing reasons, we urge you to oppose any proposals to alter the tax treatment of employer provided health care,” said the letter to Congress.