U.S. Capitol, west side from Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Capitol, west side from Wikimedia Commons

Washington says ‘yes’ to Amtrak, Gateway, and Airport Fees; ‘maybe’ to tighter airline seats

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

For the summer doldrums, Washington generated more than you might expect last week. The news comes from House and Senate transportation funding proposals, along with a decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Amtrak. Both House and Senate seem ready to ignore President Trump’s call for drastic Amtrak cuts that would, in effect, axe all long-haul trains. Instead, both houses seem ready to continue Amtrak funding at close to current levels, which means the long-haul trains will continue. That doesn’t mean no problems; much of Amtrak’s long-haul equipment is in need of refurbishing or replacement, and current proposals don’t include much to maintain equipment or buy new. But it does mean that even the most money-losing routes, such as the Sunset Limited, will keep operating.

Long-term readers will remember I’m conflicted about Amtrak’s long-haul trains. Yes, they’re nice to have around, but losing some $200 per passenger and $400 for sleeper passengers seems pretty hard to justify. Rail travel is most useful when trains are fast and frequent enough to challenge airlines for total trip time and convenience, and long-distance trains lumbering around the countryside at 40 to 50 miles per hour don’t cut it. Still, Amtrak’s long-distance trains are governed by politics, not economics, and my guess is that they’ll remain for the foreseeable future.

Gateway. It’s hard to think of an infrastructure project more necessary — and more expensive — than the Gateway project in New York-New Jersey. Specifically, the 100-year-old tunnels under the Hudson from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan suffered severe damage in Hurricane Sandy, and even without breakdowns, their close to maximum capacity. The House specifically calls for $900 million to start the $24 billion project.

Airport Fees. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommends hiking the maximum airport “passenger facility charge,” or PFC, from the current $4.50 to $8.50. Airports say they need it to cope with ever-increasing demand; airlines and some consumer advocates say it’s “too high.” Currently, probably a majority of airline passengers pay $9 in PDFs on top of the fare and other fees for a round-trip in nonstop flights; more on connections. Hiked to a base $17 per round-trip, the fee total could well be a deal-breaker for lots of short-haul flyers, who can opt to drive instead.

Funding Outlook. George Will noted, “Legislative bargaining is inherently additive.” That means something like “We’ll include your stuff if you include our stuff.” Accordingly, I expect that the Amtrak funding, Gateway funding, and fees will reach the final bill. And that raises one big worry: One of the “our stuff” proposals in the House is a resurrection of the odious “Airfare Transparency Act,” that would allow airlines to omit fees and taxes from their advertised fares.

Airline Seats. Two years ago, Flyers Rights petitioned the Department of Transportation to set minimum seating standards for commercial aircraft, on the grounds of safety — emergency egress from a survivable crash — and health, mainly the DVT threat. DOT dismissed the petition, saying it had studies showing that tight seating was safe and seat spacing had nothing to do with health.

Flyers Rights went to the DC Court of Appeals to compel DOT to take a second look. Although the Court of Appeals dismissed the health issue in the Flyers Rights petition last week, it supported the safety issue. On safety, the Court concluded, “The Administration denied the [original Flyers Rights] petition, asserting that seat spacing did not affect the safety or speed of passenger evacuations. To support that conclusion, the Administration pointed to (at best) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters. That type of vaporous record will not do — the Administrative Procedure Act requires reasoned decision-making grounded in actual evidence.” The Court continued, “That is not how judicial review works. We cannot affirm the sufficiency of what we cannot see.”

So the issue goes back to DOT, which might do anything from appealing the decision to authorizing valid studies. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen, but at least for now, minimum seating dimensions aren’t dead.


(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

Tribune Content Agency — August 1, 2017


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