An interview with Caltrans’ BILL BRONTE
Reported by Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer
with Russ Jackson, RailPAC.org editor
There is good news to celebrate and some not so good news as to the future of funding for the Caltrans Rail program for the year 2009 as of the publication date of this newsletter.
In late February writer Kerby spoke at length with Caltrans Rail Program Chief, Bill Bronte, who is well known to RailPAC members from his participation in our meetings. Mr. Bronte, Caltrans Director Will Kempton, and Gene Skoropowski, Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor, have been saluted by RailPAC many times for their outstanding leadership in the growth of the three state-funded rail corridors, Capitol, San Joaquin, and Surfliner. The growth in ridership on these routes over the past few years is testimony to their successful operating practices as much as the economy bringing riders to the trains.
Mr. Bronte reports that (and this is the good news) state funding for Amtrak operations of the state-funded trains remains in the package of budget legislation signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger on February 20. The amount appropriated for intercity rail contracts is $90,347,027. Two years ago that account had been frozen for five years at about $73 million; last year it was increased to $86 million because of Amtrak’s increased costs of fuel and labor contracts, so the $90 million this year represents the faith that the state has in the rail program in a time of severe budget cuts to other programs.
On the other hand, capital expenditures have been curtailed state-wide for the improvements to the rail infrastructure, just as been the case for highways, schools, and other programs. Mr. Bronte said, “Caltrans has $350 million in projects ready to start within 90 days; the total climbs to nearly $2 billion over the next two years ahead. That’s all rail!” Included in the total are $70 million for Fullerton’s triple tracking, $34 million at Los Angeles Union Station (work in progress that has stopped), $10 million for the Emeryville station and track improvements, $16 million for replacement of the Santa Margarita bridge near Oceanside, and $50 million for track improvements between Pittsburg and Antioch on the BNSF San Joaquin train route.
During the proceedings of the American RR Superintendents, who met in February in Sacramento, Mr. Bronte presented challenges to the group and later met with Union Pacific Vice-President Dennis Duffy on some of the issues that the Capitol Corridor, and the Union Pacific, are going to face in these difficult economic times. Layoffs of UP track crews in California (due to reduced traffic volume) were a possibility. The Stimulus package appears to have come to the rescue to keep infrastructure work going. Since state departments of transportation must lead in conventional rail projects, one of the three categories of the stimulus package, long term communication with the Class I railroads and DoT’s should minimize conflict between projects and their proponents. “Much remains unknown about how the funds for intercity rail and high speed rail projects will flow,” according to Mr. Bronte, “It is known there is $8 billion available for both intercity and high speed rail. By mid-April the Secretary of US DoT will determine how the $8 billion will be divided between High Speed and Intercity Rail. By mid-June, the Secretary is to release interim guidelines for the actual applications. The process will be, by no means, swift!” For California, both railroads (UP and BNSF) are working with the State and the Capitol Corridor to prepare their applications. Bronte is pleased with current cooperation by BNSF and UP in terms of on time performance and providing information and analysis to public agencies to garner federal funds.
As we know, in the Stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress Amtrak receives $1.3 billion, with $850 million for capital (nothing for operations), with a maximum of 60% going to the Northeast Corridor, and $450 million for security. An issue for the states is, taken from a report provided to RailPAC, “Amtrak staff has stated that States should not anticipate that funds will be available for improvements on state corridors. All funds not on the NEC will be used for equipment rehab and improvements to the long distance services.
The stimulus package is not the only legislation pending that involves Amtrak and the state rail program. Mr. Bronte is looking ahead to the eventual passage of the 2009 Federal Appropriations bill and the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (HR 2095) passed last year, both not yet funded by the Congress. HR 2095 contains an 80/20 competitive matching grant program totaling $1.9 billion over 5 years. But, Bronte says, “What is important to note is the fact that the Amtrak reauthorization also included a ‘look back’ that allows states to use prior expenditures as match those capital grants.” He told RailPAC that “We expect the 2009 Appropriations bill will be passed. The ‘continuing resolution’ (which funds the entire government) expires on March 6th. We expect Amtrak will be funded and the 50/50 capital matching program (contained in it) to be appropriated at approximately $90 million.”
Bill Bronte is excited about the size of the stimulus package and daunted by its complexity. He will start the process for the Federal Fiscal Year 2010 immediately after all the current funding is resolved. “None of us are willing to wager if the Congress will be willing or able to appropriate to the levels authorized.”