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Train anti-collision deadline extension a must-pass — but how?

By Heather Caygle

8/6/15 6:09 PM EDT

Congress has just a handful of months to act on a looming railroad safety deadline, but whether the vehicle will be a multiyear transportation bill remains to be seen.

Lawmakers are all but certain to grant railroads some sort of reprieve from the fast-approaching December deadline to install an expansive and expensive anti-collision system known as Positive Train Control. But how?

Language related to PTC has been included in the Senate’s multiyear transportation bill, but whether that will survive a conference — or even whether lawmakers will get to a conference on the bill at all — before the deadline expires is an open question.

To start, a quick look at history doesn’t bode well for the bill’s entire rail title, much less the PTC language.

During 2012 highway and transit negotiations, lawmakers abruptly dropped a rail title after disagreements over some provisions, including PTC language, threatened to derail the whole bill. Not to mention that rail typically isn’t included as part of the highway and transit bill.

“I don’t know of its survival,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) when asked about the chances that rail makes it through this time around. “I would think you’re going to have the same objections and same problems we had before on that.”

As EPW chairman, Inhofe was the primary architect behind major portions of the Senate bill encompassing highway and bridge programs, but the Commerce Committee oversees other key parts of the bill, including highway safety and rail. Hoping to avoid a repeat of 2012, Commerce staffers reached bipartisan consensus on the rail provisions in the multiyear bill and included a goodie bag of policy changes that Republicans and Democrats may find hard to resist.

The main chunk of the rail title — an Amtrak reauthorization first introduced by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — was unanimously approved by the committee late June. Other add-ons since then, most importantly a three-year extension of the PTC deadline, also have bipartisan backing.

In addition to addressing PTC, the Senate’s infrastructure bill shakes up rail policy in ways that lawmakers in both parties have long called for, including reorganizing Amtrak’s business lines and providing more grants for safety improvements following a spate of deadly accidents this year.

Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said he’s already started conversations with House lawmakers about the rail title, including a chat with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) late last week.

“He’s got a lot of interest, obviously, in the rail issues,” Thune told POLITICO. “I don’t know how they’re going to handle it on the House side but obviously he’s got an interest in having a rail title in the bill.”

Shuster easily moved a bipartisan Amtrak reauthorization through the House earlier this year, but that bill didn’t include an extension for the PTC deadline or some of the key safety provisions that are in the Senate plan.

Most major freight and commuter railroads have said they’re going to miss the December deadline to have the anti-collision system up and running. And with just five months until time’s up, the Federal Railroad Administration has yet to detail how it will punish railroads that blow past the deadline if Congress doesn’t intervene.

“On Jan. 1, 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration will assess each railroad’s PTC implementation status and apply its enforcement tools to bring railroads into compliance as quickly as possible,” said FRA spokesman Matt Lehner on Wednesday.

Positive train control was one of two major hangups during rail negotiations in 2012. Lawmakers were under pressure to produce some kind of multiyear highway and transit bill beyond the handful of extensions that had sustained the program since 2009, and in the end, when the rail title became an unworkable point of disagreement, it was dropped.

“Both sides had the rail issues that they wanted to see addressed and I would say in the House the top priority was a PTC extension. In the Senate with [Jay] Rockefeller as the chair of Commerce, he had Surface Transportation Board provisions that he wanted to push forward,” said a source involved in negotiations. “Both sides tried to talk through them but the differences were too far to bridge.”

But several sources involved in the current talks said they don’t expect the debate over PTC to be as much of a deal-breaker this time around. For one thing, the deadline extension included in the Senate bill is a bipartisan compromise between two alternate proposals, including one initially backed by Thune that would’ve kicked the deadline out until 2020.

The final PTC language is similar to a proposal put forth by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a handful of other Democrats.

Feinstein even voted in favor of the overall bill when the final passage vote came up in the Senate last week. Her support is important because she’s been an outspoken advocate for the anti-collision system following a deadly 2008 collision in California that spurred Congress to enact the PTC deadline.

Lawmakers will also head into fall negotiations with different leaders at the helm of rail-related committees — Thune is now in charge of the Commerce Committee and the House Transportation Committee isn’t chaired by the sometimes volatile Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who held the gavel in 2012.

The congressionally mandated deadline is also much more pressing now than it was in 2012 — lawmakers have just a few months to take action; not addressing it would trigger FRA action against major railroads, including possibly hefty fines.

“The PTC debate wasn’t quite ripe then, I think there wasn’t consensus yet on an extension,” said a source involved in the 2012 conference. “I think that there’s a far greater potential this time. There’s broad bipartisan consensus on the need for a PTC extension, and the need for it is pretty clear with a deadline looming.”

Regardless, conferencing a surface transportation bill by year’s end will be an enormous, maybe impossible, lift, and if that doesn’t happen, any PTC extension is likely to find a home in another must-pass vehicle. The most likely is an omnibus or continuing resolution, which House leadership has already acknowledged will be necessary this year.

“Most legislating these days is done through omnibus bills, so getting something into one of these bills is not in and of itself impossible the way it might have when Congress operated more by what I call regular order — considering distinct issues and bills separately,” said a longtime rail lobbyist.

Thune didn’t rule out the idea of attaching a PTC rider to some other must-pass bill if conference negotiations fall apart.

“We’ve got to do something on PTC because they’re not going to get there by the end of the year,” Thune said.

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