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Obama signs 3-week highway patch, PTC deadline extension

The stop-gap funding measure also included an extension of the deadline for railways to implement Positive Train Control until 2018 at the earliest, a provision some Senate Democrats say shouldn’t have been included in a short-term transportation patch.

   President Obama signed into a law a bill that extends federal funding for transportation and infrastructure for an additional three weeks on Thursday, preventing a shutdown in spending just hours before the current short-term authorization was set to expire.
   Obama signed the legislation (H.R. 3819) despite previously urging Congress to come up with a long-term plan for funding needed transportation projects. Lawmakers in the House and Senate now have until Nov. 20 to complete and reconcile their respective multi-year highway bills, but Congress has not passed transportation funding legislation lasting longer than two years since 2005.
  The House is still working on its $325 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act of 2015, while Senate passed its own $258 billion measure in July. Both would reauthorize federal transportation programs, including highway and bridge construction aid for six years, but the Senate’s DRIVE Act would only guarantee funding for three years because senators could not agree on how to fund the remaining years beyond baseline levels.
   The Department of Transportation estimates a $16 billion-per-year shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which receives the majority of its funds from gas and diesel taxes that haven’t been increased since 1993.
   The stop-gap measure also included an extension of the Dec. 31 deadline for railways to implement Positive Train Control until 2018 at the earliest, a provision some Senate Democrats say shouldn’t have been included in a short-term transportation funding patch.
   “This measure is a lose-lose, an avoidable and abysmal delay in life-saving technology for our railroads and an inadequate extension of highway and road funding,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement following bill’s approval.
   “I will fight for aggressive implementation of the new deadlines for PTC to help save the costs in dollars and lives that may result from continuing collisions, derailments, and other preventable catastrophes,” he added. “One expert noted that ‘PTC is the most important rail safety advancement of our time’ — and the U.S. Senate today chose to delay it by five years.”
   Transportation industry advocates say extending the PTC deadline was the only way to avert a partial shutdown of major railroads, who previously threatened to shut down rather than be subject to steep fines and increased liability as of Jan. 1.
   PTC is a wireless communication system that can override a conductor to slow or stop a train to prevent an accident, and supporters say it will drastically improve both passenger and cargo railroad safety. But the system is complicated, and railways claim the prior deadline didn’t give them enough time to implement and certify it.
   Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger and other rail industry advocates applauded the passing of the short-term funding bill as well as the deadline extension for PTC.
   “This provides the certainty American industries and businesses need to serve the millions of Americans who rely on rail every day,” Hamberger said of the bill. “The extension means freight and passenger railroads can continue moving forward with the ongoing development, installation, real-world testing and validation of this complex technology.
   “The rail industry remains fully committed to being accountable and transparent in completing PTC and we look forward to working with Congress to get a broader long-term surface transportation bill to the desk of the President expeditiously.”
   “Americans who depend on freight and commuter railroads for their livelihoods and critical deliveries can breathe a sigh of relief,” U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said in a statement after Obama signed the bill into law. “This legislation prevents rail service disruptions that would have occurred had Congress not acted, while still ensuring that this critical safety technology is implemented as quickly as possible. This legislation also grants a needed highway extension to facilitate a bipartisan agreement on a comprehensive, multi-year transportation bill.”
   AAR estimates freight railroads have spent close to $6 billion on PTC development, testing and installation and could spend up to $4 billion more by the time the system is fully operational.