Congress extends Positive Train Control deadline and the Highway Trust Fund’s insolvency

Congress passed a bill yesterday extending the federal deadline for railroads to implement Positive Train Control safety technologies by three to five years. The original deadline to install PTC on all freight and intercity commuter rail lines was December 31, 2015.

The PTC extension was tacked onto the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2015 by Rep. Bill Shuster (R, PA-9), which extended the Federal Highway Trust Fund’s life by a few short weeks. The federal transportation infrastructure funding program was set to expire today, October 29, 2015. It is now extended to November 20, 2015.

Congress mandated Positive Train Control after a deadly crash on Los Angeles’ Metrolink line in 2008. The technology provides for automatic braking and other speed controls.

PTC would have likely prevented the Amtrak 188 crash in May that claimed the lives of eight passengers. At the time of the accident, Amtrak had installed PTC technology on the southbound line where the train derailed in North Philadelphia, but not for trains heading north like Amtrak 188.

To date, only SEPTA, Amtrak, and Metrolink are on pace to hit the initial end-of-year deadline under the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. Railroads spent millions in recent years lobbying congress to extend the deadline. SEPTA spent $239 million as of May installing the system, and Amtrak spent $111 million. In an interview with PlanPhilly, former SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey said SEPTA put off many other capital projects to reach the deadline.

Current SEPTA GM Jeff Knueppel previously told PlanPhilly that the transit authority would use some of the additional time provided by a deadline extension to conduct additional testing on their PTC system. 

Railroads now will have a baseline extension of three years to implement the law, and may submit a plan for regulatory review which would allow for an additional two years.

Many railroads’ efforts to install the system were undercut by problems acquiring the necessary radio frequency bandwidths, a limited number of contractors qualified to install PTC systems, and a general lack of funding. The bill does not provide any federal funding to implement PTC technology, which some railroads have lambasted as an unfunded mandate.

The extension for the Federal Highway Trust Fund is just the latest in a long string of small extension bills. Congress has been unable to agree on how to fund the program, which also provides federal monies to public transportation and other transportation infrastructure. Some want to increase the federal gas tax, currently set at 18.4 cents a gallon, whereas others have proposed using a repatriation tax holiday on foreign-earned income.

The bill passed the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday. The President is expected to sign the bill this week.

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