The House on Tuesday appended a deadline extension being sought by the railroad industry to a must-pass highway funding bill and approved both, delaying for at least three years a safety measure that could have prevented the Amtrak derailment that killed eight people and injured more than 200 in May.
Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) added the extension for an automatic braking system known as positive train control (PTC) to a highway funding bill, hoping to encourage the Senate to follow suit.
Congress has agreed to extend until Nov. 20 funding for all highway and transit, a measure that must be voted on this week so that money to state and local governments does not expire.
Shuster paired that extension with one what would give railroads until 2018 to install PTC. The original deadline for the installation — mandated by Congress — is Dec. 31.
Experts say that PTC, called “arguably the single-most important rail safety development in more than a century” by federal regulators, could have prevented the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in May.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the system could have prevented 145 rail accidents that killed 288 people and injured 6,574 since 1969.
The move to add the PTC extension to the highway funding extension, putting both to a single vote, faces Senate opposition led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
The railroad industry has mounted an intense public and private lobbying effort to get the deadline Congress set in 2008 extended for another three years.
Last week, the railroads said that all freight and commuter rail lines would face a shutdown at the end of the year unless an extension was granted. They warned of a “transportation crisis” unless Congress acted this week, saying they would begin sending out shutdown notices and informing passengers and customers of an impending disaster that would do $30 billion in damage to the economy.
“We need to extend the Positive Train Control deadline as soon as possible to prevent significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country,” Shuster said in a statement announcing his plan to marry the highway and PTC extensions. “The sooner we extend this deadline, the more certainty we will give our agricultural, manufacturing, and chemical industries to ensure there will be no supply-chain disruptions.”
Shuster, who has received campaign contributions of $446,079 from the railroad industry since 2001, has expressed reservations in the past about the need for PTC. The mandate would cost the industry $14.7 billion, and federal economists put the cost-benefit ratio at about 20 to 1.
Congress arrived at the Dec. 31 deadline after a head-on train collision in California in 2008 killed 25 people and injured 102 others. The NTSB said PTC could have prevented the accident.
Since then, some railroads, notably Burlington Northern Santa Fe, have made significant progress in installing the complex systems. Others, including Union Pacific, have yet to fully install the system in a single locomotive.
While the railroads have insisted that they will need until 2018 to get PTC installed and, perhaps, two additional years of testing before it becomes fully functional, there also is the possibility that Congress could approve a brief extension — perhaps a matter of months. Then the issue of when the final deadline should be could be addressed in the normal order of business when the House and Senate confer on the larger surface transportation bill. Both House and Senate have included a PTC extension in that legislation.
A congressional aide questioned why the PTC extension was added to the highway bill.
“Why is it that only the railroads are getting this special treatment?” said the aide, who is not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s because they have executed a massive campaign saying it had to be done by Nov. 1.”
Appending additional legislation to extension bills in the past has been cause for friction in the House.
Some in Congress said the industry — and Congress itself — could become accustomed to extensions with harmful consequences. While some delay is now inevitable, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to Shuster on Tuesday that granting a “blanket extension” would send the wrong message.
“I ask that you make clear that a short term extension of the PTC deadline will not become a permanent feature of Congressional action, as it has in so many other cases,” Schiff wrote.
Speaking on the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) called the PTC extension “disappointing.”
“The railroads are woefully behind schedule,” she said. “I worry what the consequences will be for this. This has to be the last delay. Congress did not mandate positive train control to be a thorn in the railroad’s side. It was done to save lives.”
Since Congress set the PTC deadline at Dec. 31, the railroad industry has spent $316 million on its lobbying efforts in Washington and contributed more than $24 million to the reelection campaigns of members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Members of the House Transportation Committee received $1.25 million in campaign contributions from the railroads in the last election cycle. As of the end of September, House committee members had received another $721,742 from the railroads.
On the Senate side, 77 senators received nearly $1.5 million in campaign contributions in 2013-2014.
The House and Senate are making progress on passage of a long-awaited, long-term surface transportation bill. The move to extend current funding until Nov. 20 comes in the hope that the two bills can be reconciled in conference committee before that deadline.
“I am confident that we can resolve the differences between the House and Senate measures and produce a final product that’s good for our nation’s infrastructure,” Shuster said in a statement. “This extension [to Nov. 20] will allow the highway bill process to continue moving forward without shutting down transportation programs and projects across the country.”