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Fly-on-the-wall observations and commentary by Pat Foran, Editor
I sat in on 10 meetings rail lobbyists had scheduled with House and Senate staff; I listened to dialogue in the offices of five Democrats and five Republicans. In three of those meetings, congressmen themselves were in attendance. I also talked with a number of other railroaders and congressional staff during the course of the day.
My takeaways from Railroad Day 2012?
• Railroaders seem to have pretty solid support on the antitrust issue. The rail message of "If the current regulatory landscape ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be resonating on both sides of the political aisle — for this legislative session, anyway. But there's enough support for an antitrust measure in both the House and Senate to make the "Preserve 'reasonable' regulation" a Railroad Day bullet point for the foreseeable future. As an aside, I heard a bit more use of the "re-reg" term (as opposed to, say, "balanced regulation" or "reasonable regulation") in meetings than I'd heard the past couple years. Part of it may be that the term is simply easier to utter than the other ways of characterizing the message. And most staffers know what railroaders mean when they use it. But I'd had the sense that the industry was on a path toward getting past that kind of rhetoric.
• Railroaders also have decent support in the truck-size-and-weight tussle. The "support the study language" message seems to have bipartisan support, thanks in no small part to Reps. Barletta and Costello working in tandem — and the logic in studying the safety and damage issues for a few years. As one Republican congressional staffer put it: "The study is just the right thing to do." But there's also plenty of support for the bigger trucks camp, whose lobby is just as vocal and organized as the rail realm's. In short: The message-sending will continue.
• There's support for the need to fund grade crossing safety, but maintaining a specific Section 130 set-aside in a reauthorization measure is anything but a slam dunk. I heard the comments often at Railroad Day: "We can't do earmarks anymore, but we can do programmatic things" ... "If it's in the highway bill, that's where the sentiment is going: let states decide what to do with that funding." If the latter is the case, it doesn't exactly bode well for status-quo maintenance of the Section 130 program. But we'll see what happens with the surface transportation reauthorization.
• Railroaders have a LOT of support on the Section 45G short-line tax credit, but support doesn't mean an extension is coming any time soon. In this political environment, "extenders" packages are difficult to pass, particularly if said packages include highly partisan (or perceived highly partisan) items. In the early afternoon on Railroad Day, railroaders learned that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) had offered an amendment that would extend a group of expired and expiring tax provisions, including the short-line tax credit, for one year until Dec. 31, 2012. On March 13, the amendment — which included mandatory passage of the Keystone Pipeline — didn't pass. There's also lingering concerns about tax breaks of any kind. As one staffer for a Republican senator who had yet to co-sponsor the tax credit bill put it: "It's not that he's opposed to the short-line tax credit [but] he's of the opinion that we need to rewrite the whole thing. He's interested in broader reform." Add in the uncertainty surrounding the surface transportation reauthorization dance and, well, you see where this is going. As one Democratic congressman told a group of railroaders on Railroad Day: "I doubt you'll see any action on this until the end of the year. We'll have a lame-duck session — no question."
Speaking of the uncertainty surrounding the surface transportation funding: The "Will Congress work together to pass a bill or default to a continuing resolution?" drama lasted right up until March 29, two days before the March 31 deadline — in keeping, then, with the lack of constructive dialogue that was on display throughout the legislative session, particularly in March (including at Railroad Day).
Part 1 — Railroad Day 2012: In Context
Part 2 — At Railroad Day: The Issues
Part 3 — Hill Meeting Takeaways
Part 4 — When Rail Resonates