April 17, 2024

Ranking Members Larsen, Foushee Statements from Hearing on Commuter Rail Industry

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Vice Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Valerie Foushee (D-NC), during today’s hearing, titled, “Getting to Work: Examining Challenges and Solutions in the Commuter Rail Industry.”

Video of Larsen’s and Foushee’s opening statements can be found here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chairman Nehls and Vice Ranking Member Foushee, for holding today’s hearing on commuter rail.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) supercharged our nation’s investment in passenger rail, providing $102 billion in planned funding for intercity rail and $108 billion for transit agencies. A significant portion of this can be used for commuter rail.

The BIL guaranteed multi-year funding for state of good repair investments and corridor development for intercity and commuter passenger rail.

It made possible, for the first time ever, dedicated, reliable federal funding—dispersed over five years—to improve and expand intercity passenger rail.

Transit agencies, Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration are implementing long-term plans for passenger rail expansion and improvement, secure in the knowledge that funding is there for five years.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about the difference this budget certainty has made for developing and sustaining infrastructure improvements and what Congress can do to keep the momentum.

Commuter rail systems have benefitted from BIL funds, including Capital Investment Grant funding, which supports transit expansion in projects across the country.

In my district, Sound Transit runs Sounder trains with two round trips every weekday between Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Seattle. Further south, the Sounder serves commuters between Tacoma and Seattle.

The trains run on freight tracks owned by the BNSF Railway Company, and BNSF operates the trains.

Amtrak provides maintenance, and Sound Transit owns the stations and provides security. This partnership is an example of the layers of support and coordination often necessary to provide commuter train service in the U.S.

Even at the federal level there are silos, with the Federal Railroad Administration providing most of the regulatory oversight of commuter rail and the Federal Transit Administration providing the bulk of the funding.

I look forward to hearing recommendations from the witnesses for the next infrastructure bill, to make passenger rail funding and service more effective.

BIL passenger rail funding is creating jobs, growing regional economies, reducing congestion and carbon emissions, and building a cleaner, greener, safer and more accessible transportation network.

For example, the Federal Transit Administration announced over $631 million to replace 302 aging transit rail cars, including over $100 million for METRA in Chicago.

That’s just the beginning. This transformational investment in the BIL is a great start. I am committed to ensuring reliable funding for long in the future.

The BIL is also an investment in workers. Federal rail funding will develop a well-trained, diverse workforce to build, operate, and maintain intercity and commuter rail systems.

While commuter rail agencies have access to dedicated funding through transit programs, there is no similar guaranteed source of funding for intercity passenger rail. 

Without the BIL’s advance appropriations, intercity passenger rail is dependent on the annual appropriations process to fund its long-term major capital projects.

Since commuter rail often shares tracks with freight or intercity passenger rail, investments in commuter rail benefit these other partners.

The FRA’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grants, or CRISI, can be used to upgrade commuter rail property that is shared with Amtrak or freight rail. The BIL guaranteed $5 billion in advance appropriations for CRISI.

Providing steady funding for intercity passenger rail will allow states and communities the certainty they need to plan and deliver more and better passenger rail service.

I thank the witnesses for being here today and for sharing your perspectives on these and other issues, and help us hear about the opportunities and challenges facing you all in today’s environment.

Vice Ranking Member Foushee:
Thank you, Chair Nehls, for holding this hearing today.

The Research Triangle expects to add more than a million people by 2050—and we need to provide good mobility options. I am hopeful that commuter rail can be part of that solution.

On the passenger rail front, I do have two state-supported Amtrak routes in my district—the Carolinian and the Piedmont, which carried more than 600,000 people last year. The Piedmont saw a 36 percent increase in ridership after North Carolina, and Amtrak added a fourth daily round trip.

In early December 2023, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $1 billion grant to develop a new intercity passenger rail route between Raleigh, North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia along the CSX “S-Line” that will connect North Carolina with Virginia, Washington, DC and other destinations along the Northeast Corridor.

I am proud to see this historic investment, which will bolster transportation options for North Carolina’s residents.

I championed this investment long before arriving to Congress and appreciate the work my predecessor, former Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair David Price, did to develop this intercity passenger rail route.

This generational investment made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will make historic changes in my district.

I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chair, and with our Committee to ensure that this type of investment continues in the future.

Let me now turn to rail safety. I am hopeful this Committee will focus on this important matter because we have not yet held a hearing on the Norfolk Southern derailment that happened in East Palestine Ohio, or the one thousand or so other derailments that occurred across the country last year.

Last month, Secretary Buttigieg sent a letter to the Class I freight railroad association that expressed concern with the freight railroads’ resistance to improving safety. He highlighted that the Federal Railroad Administration’s statistics do not show safety improving significantly over the past decade.

He encouraged the railroads to join with Congress and regulators to improve safety—rather than continue to fight against proposed safety reforms.

I ask consent to put Secretary Buttigieg’s letter into the record.

There are several legislative proposals that have been introduced in the House that could serve as the basis for us to address rail safety. 

Furthermore, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has 190 outstanding rail safety recommendations from prior accidents and incidents. The chair told us this in January and reiterated it again last week during her renomination hearing.

I hope when the NTSB’s final East Palestine report comes out in June that we will be able to quickly turn to this issue.

At the same time the safety regulator is expressing concern, the economic regulator is also raising red flags.

Surface Transportation Board (STB) Chair Martin Oberman stated at a February conference for rail shippers that the freight rail workforce has declined dramatically over the past decade.

While some railroads have re-focused efforts on making capital investments and re-hiring people to make improvements, others continue to cut workers and cut their capital expenditures.

I ask consent to put STB Chair Oberman’s speech into the record.

Freight rail is essential to our nation’s economy. 

But over the last 10 years, freight rail movements declined.

If we want to see the environmental and safety benefits of moving freight by rail, it seems nearly impossible to do so if the railroads do not have enough people or are not making enough investments in their infrastructure.

Turning back to commuter rail, we have been discussing in my district introducing commuter rail to Durham since the early 1990s. But we don’t yet have it.

I look forward to learning more about commuter rail services around the country from our witnesses.

I yield back.