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House transportation bill fails to unite when it is needed most

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The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee passed a $500 billion surface transportation bill along party lines. It moved to the full House of Representatives as part of a larger, $1.5 trillion infrastructure package.

At a time that desperately calls for politicians to come together to meet pressing challenges, including infrastructure, the bill woefully misses the mark. Throughout the crafting of the bill and even during the markup, past precedent of bipartisan collaboration was largely absent.

The legislation is being used as a vehicle to advance misguided policy unrelated to short term, COVID-related challenges. It also neglects the broader need to have a fully integrated transportation system, supported through sustained investments.

The opposition to the surface transportation portion is diverse and falls well beyond party lines. The problems are too long to list here. But one part of the bill – the railroad section – is of particular concern to my organization, the Association of American Railroads, and worth discussing given its ironic treatment of U.S. freight railroads that fund their own network.

Consider this: freight railroads maintain a 140,000-mile network that touches almost every sector of the economy. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, railroads prioritized employee safety to maintain operations and ensure that critical goods used in manufacturing and sold in stores were available. Today, the industry is serving a prominent role in the nation’s economic recovery.

Despite the undeniable impact of the shutdown on traffic volumes, the freight rail industry did not seek or receive federal stimulus money. This stands in stark contrast to numerous other industries of all kinds, including other transportation industries.

While railroads support efforts to fully fund our nation’s highways through appropriate “user pay” mechanisms, they are seeking no funding for their own networks in a surface transportation reauthorization. Through some $25 billion annually in private investments, it’s fair to say that freight railroads take care of themselves.

All the while, railroads are one of the cleanest forms of transportation. Moving freight off the highways and onto rail can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75 percent. In fact, freight railroads account for less than 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and only 2 percent of the transportation-related sources, while accounting for roughly 40 percent of long-distance freight volume.

For instance, the one-sided legislation attempts to usurp ongoing collective bargaining negotiations by mandating most freight trains operate with two people in the cab of a locomotive. Ironically, the legislation would not apply to passenger rail. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) – the regulator responsible for ensuring rail safety – recently ruled there is no safety justification to mandate minimum crew sizes.

However, an inability to do so would “exclude freight rail from the increased productivity of the digital age, even with the widespread anticipation of self-driving cars and semis,” says Elliott Long, a policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Rail crew size adjustments have been determined through collective bargaining under the Railway Labor Act for decades. All the while, railroad safety has only improved. Now is not the time for policymakers to put their collective thumbs on the scale.

The bill also attempts to halt the movement of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) by railroads – despite a full administrative rulemaking on the issue. LNG is not currently a major source of rail traffic. However, because this energy source has been crucial in reducing GHG emissions in the U.S., and because certain markets lack pipeline infrastructure to bring it to market, it is nonsensical to prohibit railroads from safely delivering LNG to communities in need of cleaner energy.

The bill would also hamper railroads’ abilities to demonstrate new technologies or modernize operational practices while slowing the movement of goods and congesting communities at North American borders. Not to mention, the newly offered “pay for” is a transfer of general tax dollars that takes us even further from a user pays system.

All told, development and now passage of this bill through committee grossly diverged from the long-successful tradition of bipartisan collaboration on infrastructure packages, leaving multiple stakeholders scratching their heads about this unproductive tact. For the freight rail industry – the sector that perhaps relies the least on the bill – the result is a plethora of misguided policy proposals that would only do harm to rail’s ability to serve customers and communities. Congress can do better. It must do better.

Ian Jefferies is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, which represents North America’s major freight rail companies, Amtrak and some regional commuter rail companies.

Tags Freight rail transportation bill

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