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By Pat Foran, Editor
In Washington, D.C., the din that is the debt-ceiling discussion reverberates in the halls of congressional office buildings. It echoes outside them, too — even in cabs, whether it's blaring over news/talk radio or coming up in conversation with a chatty driver. Right now, debt deal talk hangs over the D.C. area as much as the heat and humidity do. But on July 14, hundreds of railroaders were able to change the subject, at least for a moment, as they delivered the rail message at Railroad Day on Capitol Hill.
The annual event is organized by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, Association of American Railroads (AAR), National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association Inc., Railway Engineering-Maintenance Suppliers Association, Railway Supply Institute, Railway Systems Suppliers Inc., Railway Tie Association and other rail industry groups. (Note: Progressive Railroading is a sponsor of the event.)
On this day, railroaders came to the Hill to ask their congressfolk (and/or their staffers and aides) to:
• Preserve balanced regulation
• Extend the short-line tax credit
• Oppose bigger and heavier trucks
• Preserve the Section 130 Grade Crossing Safety Program
During the early-morning orientation briefing, an attendee asked what a number of rail advocates were thinking: “With the current paralysis on the Hill [i.e., the debt thing], will anybody listen to us today?”
“Yes, I think they will,” said Adam Nordstrom, a partner with short-line industry lobbying firm Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell L.L.C.
And listen, they did. An informal, anything-but-scientific, post-"Day" survey showed the rail lobby had a pretty captive audience. In visits that lasted anywhere from 10 minutes or more than 30, lawmakers and/or staffers were locked in, and sympathetic if not supportive of the measures that matter most in rail country, attendees said.
"There was very little push back," as one veteran lobbyist put it during the post-event reception.
Even so, the debt talks still rule, making it difficult for some lawmakers to pledge their support for the short-line tax credit ("It can still be viewed as a give back in this environment," a staffer for a Democratic congressman said) or the Section 130 program in the surface transportation reauthorization bill ("Even though it's a good program, your work may be cut out for you right now," said an aide to a Republican congressman).
Focusing on the Freshmen Class
In any event, railroaders came prepared; they simply rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Many focused on the influx of freshmen congressmen. They came away pleased with their grasp of business issues and, more often than that, rail-specific concerns.
At the office of Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), seven lobbyists for the day delivered the rail message(s) to a Denham staffer. The group also asked the staffer to thank Denham, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, for co-sponsoring the bill (H.R. 721) to extend the Section 45G tax credit. The staffer seemed (at minimum) empathetic with the other issues — truck size and weight and the economic regulation concerns.
“If there's anything coming up that we should know about, please give us a heads up," the staffer said in what would be a common refrain during the day. “We definitely understand the importance of railroads in California.”
A group of four railroaders received a similarly warm reception at the office of Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), a car dealer and freshman congressman. Kelly, whose grandfather was a conductor for the erstwhile Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, is an H.R. 721 co-sponsor. A sign on his desk reads: "When you get there, remember where you came from."
He expressed concern about Washington's ability (or lack thereof) to consider infrastructure in a bigger-picture context. He also told the group how difficult it is to "move the marker" on the Hill.
"There's no reason why both parties can't work these things out," he said. "The divide is really wide and it's widening."
Nevertheless, he asked the group of railroaders — short liners, mostly — to keep on pushing, as well as to let him know how he might be able to help.
"Please stick with it," Kelly told the group. "Don't give up."
'How Can We Help?'
A diverse group comprising 10 lobbyists stuck with the program during a visit to the office of freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), where a staffer told them the senator hadn't taken a position on S. 112, which would exempt Vermont and Maine from current truck-size-and-weight limits. He added, though, that the office certainly had "heard from a chorus of folks in opposition" to it.
Several railroaders also articulated the need, as they saw it, to keep the Section 130 program in Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (aka SAFETEA-LU). They cited statistical evidence of Section 130's success during the past several decades.
"There's talk of consolidating 130 into a larger 'safety' program, but to take this and combine it in the general fund would be a problem," said one railroader to the staffer for Rubio, who serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "If, in the general fund, the money goes to where the biggest problems are, grade-crossing safety might not rate high because this program's done such a good job of reducing rail and highway fatalities."
The group also talked up the short-line tax credit, adding that any support the senator, who has yet to co-sign the senate version of the bill (S. 672), could give would be appreciated. The staffer said, simply: "OK." But he added a bit more as the lobbyists packed up to go to their next visits.
"We're in a position to help on the [Senate committee], so if there's any information you want to pass along, please do," he said. "At least half of our side of the committee is new, and the majority staff already indicated there are a lot of things we have to work out with this [reauthorization] bill. We hope we can work with you guys on that."
Band-Aids and Banding Together
The "let's work together" call came from both sides of the political aisle. But doing so in the current environment isn't going to be so easy, as a visit to the office of freshman Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) illustrated.
Carney serves on the Bicameral High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus and is a regular Amtrak rider, a staffer told rail lobbyists. He also believes in freight rail. But he like, the rest of his colleagues, is knee-deep in the struggle to come up with a "mid- to long-term deficit reduction solution that doesn't undercut the economy," as the staffer put it.
"That's why you don't see him co-sponsoring too many bills right now," she said. "It's difficult for us to be out front on something like the short-line tax credit."
A short-line president made a passionate, eloquent case for the tax credit: "We do a lot of Band-Aiding and patching up, and these tax credits five us the ability to do that. For every dollar we spend, we get 50 cents back, so it's important to us."
The Band-Aiding has even broader implications.
"As a railroader, I'm protecting this corridor for some use. If nothing else, this tax credit thing — I just keep it going for the next use," the short liner said. "Because once you lose it, it's almost impossible to get it back. That's why we ask for a little help."
The words seemed to resonate with Carney, who had missed part of the conversation — like most of the legislators, he had votes to register and other meetings to make. He acknowledged the need to "protect corridors for transport," as well as the notion that the need to invest in infrastructure (both freight and passenger) is important, perhaps as important as it's ever been.
"The challenge is to meet all these needs in what is an increasingly declining revenue stream," he said, soberly. "It's good that we have people like you to fight for rail. The need should be obvious to most people. It's obvious to me."
Less obvious is whether the tax credit or any other rail measure will see the light of legislative day any time soon. But even though the wheels turn slowly in Washington, they do turn, as AAR Vice President of Government Affairs Hubert "Obie" O'Bannon reminded the railroader/lobbyists before they trudged up the Hill on Railroad Day.
"After the paralysis is over and the debt issue is solved, a floodgate could open — of good things and bad," said O'Bannon, who is retiring this month after more than 35 years of advocating rail industry objectives on Capitol Hill, including 23 years with the AAR. "That's why it's good to keep the pressure on now. You literally don’t know what’s going to happen in Congress.”
Amid the debt din and the corresponding uncertainty, the certainty message was more than welcome.