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Amtrak, high speed rail loom large on Corrine Brown’s plate

(The following story by Leo King appeared on The Examiner website on September 3, 2009.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nicholas Martinelli sat in an office chair dressed nattily in a jacket and tie.

Examiner met with him in Rep. Corrine Brown’s (D) Jacksonville office on September 1. He is her point man on transportation matters. His official title is Legislative Director, and is part of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s professional staff. Brown is on that committee, and chair of the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials subcommittee.

Martinelli usually hangs his hat in Brown’s Washington office, but he was in Jacksonville to assist with constituent services. Meanwhile, Brown was in Orlando working on constituent matters.

“Nick,” as people on Brown’s staff call him, knows a thing or two about transportation, and railroading in particular. He is a walking encyclopedia on transportation matters.
“We’re reauthorizing the transportation bill.” He was referring to the House Transportation Committee.

“Every six years we reauthorize the surface transportation programs. The last reauthorization runs out September 31.”

He added, “That’s clearly the biggest thing the transportation committee is working on right now. The Senate, unfortunately, and the White House would like to see an 18-month extension on the bill itself; to do an 18 month ‘CR.’” That’s a continuing reauthorization.

“For the next 18 months they would run the program as the funding levels are now,” he said.

Martinelli recalled the Eisenhower interstate highway plan. He said that’s what the House Transportation Committee envisions for rail.

Martinelli has a habit of changing thought in mid-sentence, just as John F. Kennedy did.

“What we want to do – and they’ve talked about this with the new chairman, Mr. [James] Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Mr. [Peter] DeFazio (D-Ore.)…. Fifty years ago when Eisenhower did the highway system and made that a 50-year plan, he was going to expand the system – and we see where that is today. It has done amazing stuff for the country. I think they’d like to see that as well” for rail.

“Something we have in the bill this year, and something we haven’t had in the past, is a ‘rail title,’ Martinelli explained. That’s something that’s clearly important to the Congress and deals with high-speed rail. One of the big problems with the bill is that in the past we’ve always funded it through the highway trust fund.”

Gasoline gas tax receipts are far off from what they were two years ago.

“In the past, we’ve always funded it with the gas tax. There were enough receipts in there to cover everything. Now we’re finding the situation where the cost of transportation infrastructure and the fact that people are driving less because of the cost of gas, we’re seeing less revenues going into the trust fund. So, they’re looking at other options to fund that – and that’s one of the problems that are slowing the process down.”

So if not the gas tax, then where will the funding come from?

“Clearly the gas tax is still a good option to funds a good chunk of it. It’s a progressive tax. You’re driving, and you pay the gas tax. It’ll still be a main factor. The White House has said they don’t want to see any increase, and other people have said as well. Even the Times-Union has written a story that the government is reaching into your pocket again for additional funding.”

“The issue they’ve talked about, and Mr. DeFazio,” chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, to come us with some revenue.

“We have the rail title in that bill now, with high-speed rail funding, and with some changes to the ‘RRIF’ program.”

That’s the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program which comes under Brown’s jurisdiction. It’s a way for railroads of any class to get cash to make needed repairs to keep operating.

“It’s a loan program for the railroads. Amtrak has been a recipient; Class 1s have done that, and then the Class 2s, the FECs, those folks. In fact, the Florida East Coast Railway, which is now headquartered here in Jacksonville, has just applied for what I think is a $100 million loan to do improvements to the system. They want to fix up the bridge that runs along the main line there.”

He was referring to the double-track bascule bridge spanning the St. Johns River in Jacksonville.

Martinelli is originally from central Pennsylvania. He said the most time he has spent in Jacksonville was “during the campaign where I spent a couple of months here.”
Amtrak’s Silver Service passenger trains make stops in Jacksonville, and the Auto Train passes through the First Coast en route to Sanford. If New Orleans- Jacksonville-Orland service ever returns, that will be another train stopping here. If and when Amtrak service moves along the FEC, that is potentially two more trains a day (one in each direction). For now, the only other First Coast stop for the national passenger carrier is Palatka.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

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