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Infrastructure in the News 8.17.16


The Hill: Smarter transportation Is just what the doctor ordered

Sometimes when I am stuck in traffic, I daydream about what I could offer patients if my prescribing privileges were not limited to medication. Rather than signing off on pills for a pre-diabetic mother, I would love to prescribe a nearby grocery store that sells fresh, affordable produce. For her whole family, I would authorize a park that offers safe exercise and respite from the heat of the city.

Washington Post: White House sets new fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks, vans and buses

The Obama administration on Tuesday finalized new fuel-economy standards for large trucks, buses and other heavy-duty vehicles, the latest in a series of efforts aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions and weaning the nation from its dependence on fossil fuels.

Washington Post: You don’t have to drive a big rig to benefit from new fuel standards

Besides making your air cleaner, the new fuel efficiency standards announced by the Obama administration won’t affect you too much unless you drive a big rig. Or will they?

Wall Street Journal: Freight Railroads Fight New Rule for Amtrak Trains (Full clip following Morning Transportation)

Freight railroads are challenging in federal court a new stricter way of measuring on-time performance for Amtrak trains, the latest wrinkle in a battle over how far freight trains must go to enable passenger trains to arrive on time.

Associated Press: Conventional Tax Proposals in an Unconventional US Campaign

In this unconventional campaign season, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have produced two conventional tax plans that mostly track their parties' long-standing views.

New York Times: U.S. Senators Quiz Airlines on IT Systems After Delta Disruption

Two U.S. senators on Tuesday sent letters to 13 major airlines expressing concerns that their information technology systems are vulnerable to outages that can strand thousands of passengers similar to recent flight cancellations.

Washington Post: Ford says it will have a fully autonomous car by 2021

Ford Motor Co. intends to have a fully driverless vehicle — no steering wheel, no pedals — on the road within five years. The car will initially be used for commercial ride-hailing or ride-sharing services, with sales to consumers coming later.

The Seattle Times: Want a stronger economy? Build infrastructure

How making federal investments in transportation, the electrical grid, ports, road repair and other backbones of America would lift the economy.

Motherboard: How Cyberattacks on Critical Infrastructure Could Cause Real-Life Disasters

In October 11, 2012, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of the impending dangers of a digital Pearl Harbor, a cyberattack that targeted critical infrastructure and caused real, physical damage.

Associated Press: Railroads show little progress on key safety technology

Many commuter and freight railroads have made little progress installing safety technology designed to prevent deadly collisions and derailments despite a mandate from Congress, according to a government report released Wednesday.


Wall Street Journal: DOT: Lake George road improvements wrapping up this fall

State transportation officials say a nearly $7 million road project that's upgrading the gateway to a popular upstate New York tourist destination will be mostly completed by this fall.

New York Times: Chattanooga’s Innovation District Beckons to Young Entrepreneurs

From Boston to Seattle, cities across the country are vying to create technology hubs, spurring real estate developments to attract start-ups and young entrepreneurs

Washington Post: Omaha’s answer to pothole complaints: a new dirt road

For miles and miles Omaha stretches on, one tidy, suburban-style neighborhood after another filled with modern low-slung houses set on spacious lawns with towering oaks and elms.

Washington Post: Metro adjusts SafeTrack plan following July derailment

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld on Tuesday announced a revised SafeTrack plan that adds several weekend shutdowns and increases the likelihood that the 10-month maintenance program will last longer than expected.

Los Angeles Times: Almost $391 million in cap-and-trade dollars awarded to public transit projects across California

Transportation officials have selected 14 public transit projects across California for a slice of proceeds from the state's auction of greenhouse gas pollution credits, almost $391 million in spending between now and the summer of 2018.

Crain’s Detroit Business: Michael Bloomberg's consulting team working with Detroit officials on city issues

For more than a year, a team of top-flight consultants have been quietly working behind the scenes with Detroit officials to improve city operations or launch new programs dealing with a variety of issues. Video warns of transit apocalypse if new tunnels aren't fast-tracked

A former writer for "The Daily Show" has produced a video explaining how red tape could delay the Gateway Tunnel project, potentially increasing gridlock and costing billions in tax dollars.

Mobilizing The Region: The High Cost of New Jersey’s Transportation Funding Stalemate

It’s time to stop pretending that New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund stalemate is about transportation funding, because it’s not.

Daily Progress: Illinois voters to see roads amendment on November ballot

When Illinois voters head to the polls in November, their first ballot question won't involve U.S. presidential candidates, but a measure aimed at preventing transportation-related funding in the state from being used for other purposes.

Indiana Public Media: Collapsed Bridge Research To Drive Infrastructure Funding

At first look, the Steel Bridge Research, Inspection and Training Engineering Center, or S-BRITE Center, commonly called the bridge gallery, isn’t remarkable. The grassy field next to the Purdue University Airport has a wide gravel path cutting through its middle, with slabs of concrete dotting the field.

American City and County: Infrastructure upgrade helps Texas city reach sustainability goals, cut expenses

El Paso, Texas, has partnered with Johnson Controls and Acuity Brands Lighting to help support the city’s sustainability goals and modernize the city’s infrastructure.

Pacific Business News: Hawaii needs $8B in infrastructure upgrades to get to 100% renewable energy

It will take an estimated $8 billion in infrastructure upgrades alone to get Oahu to 100 percent renewable energy, a former Hawaii regulator told attendees at an energy event in Honolulu.

By Lauren Gardner | 08/17/2016 05:41 AM EDT

With help from Alex Guillén, Ben Weyl and Kathryn A. Wolfe

CHECK ANOTHER ONE OFF OBAMA'S TRUCK-IT LIST: The last of President Barack Obama's series of vehicle efficiency rules dropped Tuesday, rounding out one of his farthest-reaching climate change agenda items and instituting new fuel economy goals lasting for the next decade. The rule, covering everything from the largest pickup trucks to 18-wheelers, will boost efficiency by up to 25 percent by 2027 and curb 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide over that period, according to the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Alex Guillén from the Pro Energy team has the details here.

Beach reading: There's a 1,690-page rule, a 1,116-page regulatory impact analysis and a 2,169-page response to comments. Oh, and a five-page fact sheet.

Go for the gold: Asked by POLITICO on Tuesday whether the next phase of vehicle efficiency rules is on the horizon, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx shot back not to rain on his parade. "Man, can we just celebrate the touchdowns?" he replied. EPA chief Gina McCarthy - who just so happens to be leading the presidential delegation to the Olympics closing ceremony this weekend - piled on with the sports metaphors. "We think we won a gold medal in Brazil, we're not going to talk about who's going to be in Tokyo," she said, referencing the location of the 2020 games.

WOO-HOO WEDNESDAY: Good morning and thanks for tuning in to POLITICO's Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on all things trains, planes, automobiles and ports.

Reach out: or @Gardner_LM, or @brigurciullo, or @JAScholtes and or @TSnyderDC.

"Drive me to the park/The sun is shining, the people are smiling" (h/t CEI's Marc Scribner)

OLD LYME DOESN'T WANT NEW RAIL BRIDGE: Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal stirred up a mini tweetstorm last week - a tweet thundershower , if you will - referencing a fight that's been simmering along the Northeast Corridor as the FRA nears the end of its high-level environmental review of potential service changes to upgrade Amtrak's 457-mile route. One of those proposed modifications would include a bypass a few miles inland that would run right through the historic town of Old Lyme, Conn. - a prospect residents and preservation groups are staunchly opposing.

Blumenthal and some of his home-state colleagues wrote to FRA last month requesting an open meeting in the town, and an aide told MT the agency has committed to attending one by the end of the month. A final environmental impact statement, which will include FRA's preferred scenario for future planning, is expected in September, the aide said.

To be continued: An FRA spokesman said the agency has committed to attend a roundtable with congressional staff and state and local officials, though no date has been set. FRA held two public hearings in Connecticut during the comment period, and agency staff has met twice with the town's leaders, he said. What's more, he said, the agency has already committed to local leaders that if the bypass makes it into the final blueprint, it wouldn't be an "aerial structure" through the historic part of town, and officials are open to a tunnel.

The point of the bypass, the spokesman said, would be to add capacity and the opportunity for quicker service along an already well-traveled route that currently has a lot of curves slowing down trains. Based on Amtrak ridership data, an estimated 300,000 Connecticut residents travel north on the NEC into Rhode Island and Boston, he said.

SHOW ME THE MONEY: FRA announced Tuesday it would dole out $25 million in PTC implementation grants to 11 projects in six states and D.C. Railroads, state DOTs and other groups submitted 30 eligible applications requesting $90.6 million - almost quadruple what Congress made available in the fiscal 2016 spending deal. Many of the projects selected for grants aim to promote interoperability among the various PTC systems railroads are deploying.

Make it (t)rain: Amtrak kept the good times rolling, with FRA loaning the railroad $2.45 billion under the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program. The RRIF loan program got a major facelift under the FAST Act in an attempt to make it easier for recipients to leverage the money to more easily finance big rail infrastructure projects.

Amtrak will use the loan to help buy 28 new American-built trainsets for Acela trains on the Northeast Corridor and to finance other improvements across its business, according to a statement from Sen. Jack Reed's office announcing the federal loan.

(NOT) KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES: Four House reps, including two on the Transportation Committee, are asking that a congressional task force charged with recommending ways that Puerto Rico can grow its economy kindly keep its hands off the Jones Act. The Jones Act is a 1920s-era law that regulates U.S. marine commerce. In a letter to the task force, Reps. Duncan Hunter, John Garamendi, Randy Forbes and Joe Courtney say they don't think a Jones Act review as part of their duties is necessary. Further, they ask to be resources to the task force to help counter "misinformation about the Jones Act" being spread. The task force is accepting input until Sept. 2.

The backdrop: Whether Jones Act restrictions should exist at all is an old debate with many tendrils. Defense of the Jones Act generally goes like this: it provides good-paying jobs, boosts local economies, and protects U.S. coasts and waterways from foreign threats. The counter argument: The law is protectionist in a global market and tends to hike shipping costs that then get passed on to consumers - especially for islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. A 2013 Government Accountability Office report concluded that partially or fully exempting Puerto Rico from the Jones Act could increase the availability of vessels serving the island but also hurt reliability of shipments and kill off the already-limping U.S. shipping and shipbuilding industries.

SAFETRACK WOMP: Red line riders, beware: SafeTrack is hanging out in your hood a tad longer than expected. Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld announced Tuesday that he's shifting the completion schedules back a week for the three maintenance "surges" either underway or coming up. The changes come after a damning FTA report last week found Metro's track inspection and maintenance regime to be woefully inadequate to bring the system into a state of good repair.

The extra time, per Metro, will allow for "completion of additional work on crossover tracks, address new safety recommendations and account for the impact of extreme heat, humidity and other weather impacts." The changes also include a slew of previously unplanned weekend shutdowns to fix switch problems. Wiedefeld next month will outline more tweaks to the project schedule for October and beyond.

DHS APPROPS IN REVIEW: Pro Budget and Appropriations Brief chief Ben Weyl is out with a helpful primer on where things stand on Congress' efforts to fund the Department of Homeland Security in fiscal 2017. On TSA, Ben reminds Pros that the House and Senate are "at odds" over the funding level for the agency, which "would get $7.6 billion from the House and $5.1 billion from the Senate. Lengthy TSA lines outraged the public earlier this year, leading the agency to shift money in its budget, a reprogramming request agreed to by lawmakers - and an issue that could come up again in the fall."

MT MAILBAG: Blumenthal and sidekick scribe Sen. Ed Markey fired off a letter Tuesday to 13 airlines to ask what they're doing to protect their IT systems against cyberattacks, power outages and other computer issues in light of recent glitches at carriers like Southwest and Delta that grounded passengers for days. The pair also urged carriers to rebook passengers stuck in those situations on competitor airlines or on other transportation modes at no additional cost, and to fully compensate them.

The bipartisan Illinois-Indiana senatorial delegation got in on the letter-writing action Tuesday, too, asking DOT to extend the comment period for a proposed rule they say could make it harder for metropolitan planning organizations in their states to coordinate, citing Chicago's and Northwest Indiana's planning agencies in particular. "Instead of improving coordination, our MPOs and State Departments of Transportation have expressed serious concerns that the proposed rule may in fact do the opposite, risking the cooperative and effective relationships our MPOs already enjoy and creating unintended difficulties for their governance structure, their comprehensive planning development, and the funding and selection of transportation projects in Illinois and Indiana," Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk wrote with Indiana Sens. Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly.

MUSICAL CHAIRS: That change you feel in the air is more than just autumn approaching (sorry, it had to be said) - there's also some shuffling going on at DOT's Navy Yard headquarters. Suzi Emmerling, who until recently served in the DOT's public affairs shop, has moved over to be Foxx's deputy chief of staff. Meanwhile, Susan Lagana will step into Emmerling's shoes as acting director of public affairs (while still wearing her deputy assistant secretary hat in the Office of Transportation Policy).

Meanwhile, Greg Principato will become president and CEO of the National Aeronautic Association. Principato previously held executive positions at the National Association of State Aviation Officials and Airports Council International.


- Ford plans self-driving car for rideshare fleets in 2021. Reuters.

- Arlington studying a plan that would pay for your Uber to Metro. The Washington Post.

- European agency proposes tougher medical checks for pilots. The Associated Press.

- Airbus, Boeing brace for crucial phase in subsidies dispute. Reuters.

- Laborers' union rallies for Transportation Trust Fund in New Jersey.

THE COUNTDOWN: DOT appropriations run out in 43 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 408 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 82 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 1,508 days.


8 a.m. - The Federal Highway Administration holds a meeting to develop proposed rules for the Tribal Transportation Self-Governance Program. Loudoun Tech Center, Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division, 21400 Ridgetop Circle, Sterling, Va.

9 a.m. - The FAA holds the fourth meeting of the Special Committee 235 on non-rechargeable lithium batteries. 1150 18th St. NW, Suite 450.

9 a.m. - The FAA holds the 19th meeting of the SC-223 Plenary Meeting Calling Notice, Internet Protocol Suite and AeroMACS. 1150 18th St. NW, Suite 910.

9 a.m. - The Office of the Secretary of Transportation holds a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation to continue discussing issues such as whether to require accessible in-flight entertainment and whether to mandate accessible lavatories on new single-aisle aircraft over a certain size. Crystal City Marriott at Reagan National Airport, Arlington, Va.

11 a.m. - Airlines for America's Vice President and Chief Economist John Heimlich reviews first half 2016 financial results for the 10 publicly traded U.S. passenger airlines and presents A4A's forecast for 2016 Labor Day air travel. Call-in at 800-701-6414. Webcast is available here.

Did we miss an event? Let MT know at

To view online:

Stories from POLITICO Pro

Obama caps off climate push with tighter truck fuel rules Back

By Alex Guillén | 08/16/2016 01:41 PM EDT

President Barack Obama released the final rule in his climate change agenda on Tuesday, rounding out a stable of regulations with a move to slash the greenhouse gas pollution from trucks by mandating sharp increases in their fuel efficiency.

Obama has made fighting climate change a centerpiece of his final years in office, but since the new rules that would cut emissions for big trucks by one-quarter won't take effect right away, Donald Trump could roll them back if he defeats Hillary Clinton in November.

Along with his controversial regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants, Obama has pushed for far more efficient engines in cars and trucks as part his strategy to lead an international effort to combat the pollution scientists blame for rising temperatures and climbing sea levels.

Combined with previous Obama-era regulations, EPA says its vehicle efficiency rules are expected to prevent nearly 7.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That's nearly 2 billion tons more CO2 than the entire U.S. currently emits annually, and according to EPA, those savings are equivalent to driving 17.7 trillion miles in cars or operating 2,145 coal plants for a year.

"The shift during this past administration has been enormous in terms of the benefits to reducing climate emissions and reducing oil consumption," said Don Anair, the research and deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicles program.

"I think these standards are definitely a strong legacy for the president," he added.

Unlike the Clean Power Plan, which focuses on electricity production and was stayed by the Supreme Court earlier this year, the administration's vehicle rules have been far less controversial.

The previous vehicle rules withstood legal challenges, and Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said EPA has developed a solid "playbook" to fuse industry and state concerns with environmental and public health pressures.

The debate over strengthening these rules has largely been contained within the trucking industry. Some manufacturers have embraced the efficiency rules as a boon to their business, and many big fleet owners, such as PepsiCo and FedEx, back the standards as well.

Other truck makers and the industry's main lobbying group have pushed for more time to design and implement improvements. And they have raised concerns about the upfront costs of adopting the more efficient technologies, though EPA says big trucks can recoup that money in as quickly as two years.

The industry trade group American Trucking Associations, which said fuel prices remain one of its members top expenses, said it is "cautiously optimistic" about the rule, in which it won key changes in areas like annual assessments and compliance timelines.

"However, while the potential for real cost savings and environmental benefits under this rule are there, fleets will ultimately determine the success or failure of this rule based on their comfort level purchasing these new technologies," said ATA Vice President Glen Kedzie.

The Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and other green groups quickly praised the rule, though the Center for Biological Diversity said the administration "sacrificed a golden opportunity" to push the trucking industry for even greater emissions cuts. But the energy industry-backed group Institute for Energy Research slammed the rule as heavy-handed and unnecessary.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said EPA and NHTSA based the new rule on extensive outreach to industry and years of research.

"You may hear some concern about whether we were too aggressive in certain areas, but the package should stand on its own," McCarthy said on a conference call with reporters. "It is based on really sound data, really engaged conversations between experts, and we think it hits that absolute sweet spot that allows us to move forward in a way that's cost-effective and reasonable."

The rule is actually a pair of regulations: One from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration addressing fuel economy, and one from EPA that goes after greenhouse gas emissions, which can include non-fuel gains through more efficient air conditioners, among other strategies.

It covers the nation's fleet of tractor-trailers, school buses, garbage trucks, delivery vans and other big workhorse vehicles, as well as larger pickup trucks like the Ford F250, that are made between 2019 and 2027. Heavy-duty trucks make up just 5 percent of all vehicles on U.S. roads, but their size and frequent use mean they account for one-fifth of transportation sector emissions.

There are different standards for different classes of vehicle, but overall the rule is expected to curb emissions over "business as usual" estimates by 1.1 billion tons.

That's an increase of about 10 percent over last year's proposal, which totaled 1 billion tons total saved CO2 emissions, 36 percent below 2010 levels.

EPA and NHTSA ultimately found that more efficient diesel engine technologies could get into the market more quickly than the agency previously anticipated, McCarthy said. The agencies also identified new aerodynamic technologies for trailers and more effective technologies to cut down on emissions when vocational vehicles are idling.

This "Phase 2" truck rule follows up a 2012 regulation covering heavy-duty model years through 2018, and pairs with the administration's first-term action to boost fuel economy for cars and light trucks.

But the savings for those light vehicles is expected to fall short of the initial targets. EPA and NHTSA said in a draft report last month that, while individual classes of vehicles are on track to meet their 2025 standards, cheap gasoline has spurred sales of big cars like sport utility vehicles, so the overall fleet won't reach the aggressive 54.5 mile-per-gallon figure by 2025 that was initially touted by Obama. Environmentalists are pushing those agencies to strengthen the late-term standards under that program, though a final decision will not come until 2018.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration projects its combined fuel economy rules will save a combined 8.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide over those programs' lifetimes.

Previous presidents from both parties have made good progress in cleaning up cars and trucks, said Becker. But Obama's rules "done a remarkably excellent job of cleaning up vehicles and fuels," he said.

"You look at trucks going down the road now, new trucks, and very few have that thick, noxious, suffocating smoke that the older legacy trucks have," Becker said. "These are cleaner buses and trucks, cleaner vehicles."

As a side benefit for states struggling to meet national air quality standards, Tuesday's rule will also help curb emissions of pollutants such as soot and nitrogen oxides, alongside the climate-related greenhouse gas savings. Environmentalists are pushing EPA to go even further with a new separate standard to reduce NOx emissions - which help create smog - by tenfold.

Automakers can also expect an eventual stab at a third phase of standards, though that will be in the hands of the next administration.

"We obviously can't stop there in terms of addressing climate emissions," Anair said. However, Phase 3 for cars and trucks may not come until after the passenger vehicle midterm review wraps up in 2018, he added.

McCarthy - who is traveling to Rio de Janeiro to lead the presidential delegation to the Olympics closing ceremony this weekend - mentioned the games in brushing off the notion that EPA would jump immediately onto a new round of standards.

"We think we won a gold medal in Brazil, we're not going to talk about who's going to be in Tokyo," where the 2020 summer games will be held, McCarthy said.

The Energy Department also announced $137 million in new investments for vehicle efficiency research projects. Of that, $80 million will go toward new fuel efficient truck technologies while $57 million is aimed at technologies for passenger cars.


FRA awards millions to states, railroads for PTC implementation Back

By Lauren Gardner | 08/16/2016 10:53 AM EDT

FRA awarded $25 million in positive train control implementation grants today to 11 projects in six states and Washington, D.C.

The agency received 30 eligible applications seeking nearly four times the amount of money Congress appropriated for the grants in fiscal 2016, FRA said.

Three commuter lines in California won a total of nearly $8.3 million. Two of those projects are geared toward helping bridge the gap between differing PTC systems that various railroads use, a goal many of the grant recipients shared, FRA said.

Amtrak also snagged a $2.64 million grant to install authentication technology "to fully secure" data transmittal and wireless communication between the start of a train's route and receivers along the Northeast Corridor.



Freight Railroads Fight New Rule for Amtrak Trains

Wall Street Journal

August 17, 2016

By Laura Stevens


Freight railroads are challenging in federal court a new stricter way of measuring on-time performance for Amtrak trains, the latest wrinkle in a battle over how far freight trains must go to enable passenger trains to arrive on time.

Currently Amtrak’s on-time arrival report card is below average, at less than 80% systemwide. That rate drops below 56% for long-distance trains.

The Association of American Railroads late last week filed documents with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, challenging a new rule issued by the Surface Transportation Board that requires that passenger train on-time performance be determined at each of Amtrak’s stops rather than at the end of its route. The rule is to take effect later this month.

That means the on-time performance of Amtrak’s California Zephyr departing from Chicago will be measured at Denver, Salt Lake City and other stops en route, not just at its final destination near San Francisco.

This way of measuring on-time performance is seen as a more accurate way to measure Amtrak punctuality between cities that are stops on longer routes. The Board will deem a train “on time” if it arrives at, or departs from, a station no more than 15 minutes after its scheduled arrival or departure.

Under a 2008 federal law, freights may be penalized if they cause passenger trains to be late by not pulling over to allow the trains to go first.

Amtrak trains, which generally travel at about 80 miles an hour, can be slowed down by freight trains in their way. The freights typically travel at average speeds of less than half that. There often aren’t enough side tracks to pull one over and let a passenger train pass. And freight train timeliness matters to their customers, too.

This tug of war is important to freight trains because their on-time service performance is a measure of their efficiency and productivity. Amtrak owns its own track primarily only in the Northeast, and must work around cargo railroads elsewhere. As a result, its trains run on 14% of the nation’s freight rail network, where railroads must balance Amtrak’s right to “preference” on the tracks with their own needs.

The Association of American Railroads says that it currently complies with the preference rule. Amtrak has said it disagrees in some cases.

In this latest development, the industry association is arguing that the new on-time measurement rule should be overturned because the Surface Transportation Board wasn’t granted authority by Congress to set those standards.

A Board spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but the agency in its rule said that it had to establish these standards to fulfill its role under law to determine whether or not a train could be considered delayed.

Amtrak and freight railroads have faced off in recent months as the Surface Transportation Board and other regulators try to fine-tune a system that will improve Amtrak’s on-time performance. Under the law, if any passenger train route averages less than 80% on-time for any two consecutive quarters, the law gave the board the right to determine the cause. If it’s due to a freight railroad’s failure to give Amtrak preference, the regulator can award damages or other appropriate relief.

Amtrak won a recent skirmish over the definition of “preference”—who gets to go first—when the Surface Transportation Board decided to keep the status quo.

Much is at stake. Freight railroads are currently struggling with profitability after boom years driven by a surge in crude-by-rail and commodities went bust, sending volumes plunging. Amtrak has been trying to boost service and reliability of its intercity and long-haul routes around the country.

Amtrak has used freight railroads’ tracks since its creation more than 40 years ago, a condition required by Congress after it lifted a mandate that freight railroads carry passengers at that time. Congress added later: “Except in an emergency, intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation provided by or for Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line, junction or crossing.”

—Andrew Tangel contributed to this article.