Crude by rail on the 2015 Congress’ legislative agenda

Repost from Politico
[Editor: this story ranges across all modes of transportation.  I have highlighted in red all references to crude by rail.  Note the significant roles to be played by “Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who as chairman of the House Transportation Committee is tasked with writing each of the transportation bills and and shepherding them through the lower chamber…. and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), incoming ranking member of the committee.”  – RS]

Loaded transportation agenda could easily be derailed

By Adam Snider, 1/2/15

There’s a laundry list of things transportation lawmakers want to get done in 2015, but they could easily be stymied by old foes, primarily a lack of money and partisan wrangling ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Lawmakers from both chambers face a to-do list that includes major legislation affecting just about every mode: aviation, passenger and freight rail, highways, bridges, transit and water resources.

Not all the action will be on Capitol Hill — there will be plenty to do a mile down New Jersey Avenue at the Transportation Department.

Regulators are hoping to put out rules early in the year on hot-button issues such as commercial drones and the safety of rail cars that carry volatile crude oil. Also pending is a rule that would ban cellphone conversations on planes and a slew of policy changes mandated by the last surface transportation bill two years ago.

“Every one of the subcommittees has the potential to do a pretty significant piece of legislation,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who as chairman of the House Transportation Committee is tasked with writing each of the transportation bills and and shepherding them through the lower chamber.

“We’re going to be busy,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), incoming ranking member of the committee, said after ticking off a long list of major bills the panel faces.

Shuster and other top lawmakers aren’t worried about a time crunch, though, because, they say, they’ve put in a lot of work on all the major bills. But the price tag of the highway and transit measure — around $100 billion just for six years of status quo funding — could easily steer it off course. And it could also get bogged down in another round of debates over how the money is divvied up among the states as well as transit’s slice of gas tax dollars.

There’s a strong and diverse coalition of groups — including business, labor and motorists — that have pushed for a gas tax increase as a way to increase federal spending on roads, bridges and transit systems. But that idea is largely a nonstarter on Capitol Hill; instead, support is building for using portions of revenues raised from corporate tax reform as a way to pay for increased infrastructure spending.

That path, however, has its own set of roadblocks. While it enjoys bipartisan support, including from polar opposites such as President Barack Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), getting it done on the Hill is no sure thing. Some lawmakers could push for a broader tax overhaul package, an ambitious goal that could further complicate issues as members bicker over the nation’s overall tax structure. Even infrastructure boosters complain that it would be onetime revenue, and not a long-term fix.

No matter what happens, though, lawmakers will have to address the Highway Trust Fund early in 2015 — the fund that pays for road, bridge and transit work will go insolvent by May. Even a simple one-year extension, which must be enacted by May 30, would cost around $15 billion because the trust fund takes in far less in gas tax revenues than it is authorized to spend each year.

Another major reauthorization, of the Federal Aviation Administration, doesn’t face the same money problem — the Airport and Airway Trust Fund that pays for over 80 percent of the bill isn’t in the same financial peril. It is increasingly under strain, however, and discussions have begun about whether and how to switch to some new system of financing, including possible privatization.

But the FAA bill brings its own set of policy disputes. West Coast lawmakers will undoubtedly again push to increase the number of long-distance flights into and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the airport closest to the Capitol used by the vast majority of lawmakers. Republicans will scrutinize the multibillion-dollar cost of NextGen, a new air traffic control system that is taking years to implement. The airport and airline lobbies will scrap over whether to raise the current cap on fees passengers pay to use certain airports. And members of both parties will prod the FAA to chart a clear path forward on drones, which to date have been addressed through a series of one-off rulings.

Lawmakers also want to address Amtrak, which saw its congressional authorization expire in 2013. The House Transportation Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan measure in 2014, but things could get more complicated when the full House takes it up. Some hard-line lawmakers want to end Amtrak’s $1.4 billion-per-year federal subsidy, while some Democrats would like to boost the railroad’s funding to help it address a backlog of deteriorating infrastructure.

The Amtrak bill could also ignite a regional battle — the House measure ensures that money made by the profitable Northeast Corridor, the area between D.C. and Boston, gets plowed back into that region’s operations. For the rest of the country, where nearly all Amtrak routes lose money, keeping service levels intact would mean states — facing their own budget shortfalls — would need to offer more money.

Hill politicians also face work on another water resources bill in 2016, though the overwhelming bipartisan support for the 2014 version makes that less of a concern. There’s also a rail safety bill on the horizon that could offer a chance to deal with the rising number of trains carrying crude oil, several of which have had headline-grabbing accidents and spills.

The DOT will also be grappling with how to stem the tide of oil train accidents. Officials hope to put out a rule in early 2015 that would set a new standard for the tank cars that carry crude and other volatile materials. The so-called cromnibus, which was recently enacted, moved the deadline for that rule up by about two months, to Jan. 15. However, most regard that as a statement from Congress more than a hard and fast deadline considering the timing.

That’s not the only regulation expected in early 2015 — regulators also aim to issue a broad rule on drones use and licensing to address the rising number of remote-controlled aircraft that can pose a major safety hazard if they get near large passenger planes. That rule was supposed to come out in 2014, but the complicated nature of the issue led the FAA’s assistant chief counsel to recently say the goal of putting it out by then was “slipping away.”

2015 could also see regulatory action to ban cellphone conversations on planes. The FCC kicked off the issue by ruling that there was no reason to continue its technical ban on in-flight calls, which set off a firestorm of worry and headlines about loud, obnoxious yakkers on flights. That led the DOT to begin its own proceeding, evaluating whether calls should remain banned under DOT’s consumer protection authority.

A string of high-profile disputes over reclining airline seats only added to the worry that phone-based brawls would be breaking out every week. And with the support of a number of lawmakers on the Hill, DOT shouldn’t run into much resistance when it formalizes the ban on in-flight cell conversations.

DOT is also facing a long list of rules implementing various parts of MAP-21, the highway and transit bill enacted in 2012, including setting performance measures to gauge how effective certain projects are at meeting each state’s transportation goals — a topic bicycle and pedestrian advocates have used to push for better safety measures.