On the heels of the first presidential debate, Americans remain critically focused on how best to stimulate the U.S. economy. Both Secretary Clinton and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE continue to promote massive infrastructure investments, even if funding mechanisms remain vague.

“Broken roads, unsafe bridges, antiquated water systems, power grids, flood controls, ports and aviation facilities – all threaten America’s economic health and quality of life,” writes political commentator Ron Faucheux. “Everyone agrees this is a problem. But, where will the trillions of dollars come from to solve it?”


Thankfully, one section of our nation’s infrastructure – privately owned freight railroads – do not face such difficult decisions. Smart public policies linked to partial deregulation in 1980 put railroads on equal footing with the rest of the private sector. Now, freight railroads invest an average of $26 billion in their networks annually. According to Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute, these investments significantly impact the U.S. economy, supporting 1.5 million jobs across the economy, generating $33 billion in taxes and producing $274 billion in economic activity in 2014 alone. These are manufacturing-based, high skilled jobs that both candidates are pledging to support and grow.

So it is troubling to see the Surface Transportation Board (STB) move forward on reregulatory efforts through several proposed rules, including so called “reciprocal switching” and commodity reregulation, that would threaten the health and success of the freight rail network. Given past precedent and the potential for widespread disruption in the rail network, regulators should abstain from such efforts. Congress, which just reauthorized the STB for the first time since its creation, must exert its will as well, and ensure the STB is operating as Congress intended.

Reciprocal switching, or more accurately, forced access, would upend longstanding precedent. It would force railroads to switch traffic to competitors without any suggestion that the incumbent railroad failed to offer competitive services, or has otherwise engaged in any sort of unreasonable behavior.

A rash of new switches could possibly advantage a few, but in the aggregate it would strain a 140,000 mile network and degrade services for the majority of customers. “Forced access would slow rail shipments across the network, injecting increased complexities and inefficiencies into the network,” says transportation expert Anthony Hatch.

Perhaps more dangerously, this regulatory effort could greatly cut into capital spending by the railroads by decreasing the incentive for investment. Past analysis by the Association of American Railroads found that a similar proposal could affect an estimated 7.5 million car loads of traffic, placing nearly $8 billion in revenues at risk.

Reduced revenues mean reduced money for investment in the rail network and reduced manufacturing job growth. Rail supply jobs are generally high-paying and high-skilled manufacturing jobs that often support American-made production in our communities. Continued investments are critical not only for maintaining a safe and efficient rail network, but for job creation.

This approach should be soundly rejected by a Congress that has never advised the STB to embark on this path.

A separate commodity regulation would subject five commodity groups to STB economic regulation for the first time in two decades. This would come despite the fact that railroads face strong competition for the service from trucks and without any fact-based evidence. Most alarmingly, these commodity groups did not petition for a rule change.

The railroad supply community plays an integral role in maintaining the world’s safest, most efficient and highly competitive freight railroad system. Along with the railroads, suppliers are concerned that the STB has interpreted its reauthorization as a signal that Congress wanted the independent agency to regulate more.

A transparent and efficient STB is crucial in maintaining a proven regulatory structure and America’s impressive transportation network. But the STB’s recent trend of imposing regulations first, and discovering the consequences later, is no path forward.

The STB should stop this wayward path now, before the U.S. economy pays the price.

Tennent is Executive Director of the Railway Engineering-Maintenance Suppliers Association (REMSA). Baker is President of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, Inc. (NRC).

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.