House reauthorizes freight rail oversight panel

Getty Images

The House approved legislation on Thursday to reauthorize the panel of federal regulators that oversees operations on the nation’s freight and passenger railways. 

The measure extends the federal funding authorization for the Department of Transportation's freight rail panel, which is known as the Surface Transportation Board (STB), until 2020. 

The bill, the first STB since the panel was created in 1980, was approved in a voice vote by the House on Thursday. A similar measure has already been approved by the Senate, meaning the measure goes now to President Obama's desk.   

The legislation increases the STB's membership from three to five members and gives the panel greater authority to proactively review compliance with federal regulations. 

Supporters of the measure said it is important for the federal government to properly oversee the nation's freight railways, although the industry was legally deregulated in the 1980s. 

“The STB plays an important role in ensuring a balanced, fair regulatory environment for both the railroads and its customers, but the agency hasn’t been reauthorized or reformed since it was created,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement.  

“This bill makes common sense improvements to increase the efficiency of the agency’s processes and decision-making, and ensures that the successful U.S. freight rail transportation system is not smothered by unnecessary regulatory burdens,” Shuster continued.  

“These much-needed reforms give the STB the ability to be responsive and effective as they work with our railroads to ensure safe and efficient transportation for goods and passengers nationwide,” House Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) added.

Railroads and shippers praised lawmakers for renewing the freight rail oversight panel on Thursday. 

"In reauthorizing the Surface Transportation Board for the first time since the agency was created, Congress has clearly stated the critical need for railroads to be able to earn the revenues to build, maintain, and further modernize the nation's 140,000-mile privately-owned rail network," Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger said in a statement. 

"These investments are needed to meet current and future freight transportation demands," Hamberger continued. "This legislation strikes the right balance of preserving a market-based structure for shippers and railroads, while also providing commonsense process improvements that will allow the STB to work more efficiently."

Industries that rely on freight railroads to ship their products to markets were equally as effusive about the House vote to reauthorize the surface transportation board on Thursday. 

“We applaud the House for listening to the growing concerns of freight rail customers and passing legislation that will modernize the nation’s freight rail policies," the American Chemistry Council said. 

"The bill passed today will help ensure American manufacturers, energy producers and farmers have greater access to competitive and reliable freight rail service," the chemistry group continued.