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Fly-on-the-wall observations and commentary by Pat Foran, Editor
First on the Railroad Day agenda: Railroaders, their customers and suppliers attended an orientation briefing conducted by CCH Partner Adam Nordstrom and AAR Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Laurie Knight, who spelled out the issues the lobbyists for the day would be articulating at more than 375 meetings with members of the Senate and House. The issues list was the same as last year's:
Nordstrom and Knight also provided a bit of breaking news: The Senate would be voting that very day on up to 10 amendments (and 30 in all, down from more than 200) to its surface transportation reauthorization bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (S. 1813).
"It's on the floor as we speak," said Nordstrom.
'Antitrust' backburnered. One amendment that wouldn't be voted on that day concerned the "Preserve 'reasonable' regulation" bullet point: S. 49/S.A. 1591. Proposed by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) on Feb. 14, the Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act (S. 49) was pitched as an amendment to the Senate’s version of a two-year, $109 billion surface transportation measure.
The measure, which Kohl has championed the past several years, proposes to restore the review of rail mergers to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and eliminate the antitrust exemption for railroad collective ratemaking. But on March 7, Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to limit the number of amendments to 30, and Kohl's measure didn't make the cut.
Regardless, railroaders were encouraged to share their thoughts on regulation with congressmen and women, and their staffers. There were rumblings that Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was talking up a House companion measure, attendees were told.
"Remind [congressional] staff that you oppose any legislation that would repeal our limited antitrust exemption, or anything that will make it harder for you to serve your customers," Nordstrom said.
Many of the railroaders in the room were short liners, and they didn't need to be reminded to talk with legislative staff about bullet point No. 2. For them, extending the short-line tax credit was Priority One.
Enacted in 2005, the Section 45G tax credit expired at the end of 2011, and "short line and regional railroad — and rail customer — investment has declined as their tax burden has increased," as Railroad Day literature put it. So, attendees were encouraged to ask congressfolk to support the Short Line Railroad Rehabilitation and Investment Act of 2011 (H.R. 721 and S. 672), and recruit one of their congressional colleagues to join the cause. The bills seek to extend the provision through 2017.
Many lawmakers already support the extension. As of late March, H.R. 721 had 251 co-sponsors and S. 672 had 46.
"We can't control when Congress will vote on an 'extenders' package, but we can continue to demonstrate that the short-line tax credit has broad, bipartisan support," Nordstrom said, urging railroads to share their private-sector investment stories — as in how, when there's certainty about the tax credit, they're able to plan projects and hire accordingly.
As for those who already support the Section 45G extension? "Thank them profusely," Nordstrom said.
The truck-size-and-weight tussle. Also on the day's agenda: truck size and weight, which as of late March was arguably something of a non-near-term concern. Longer term? It's still an issue, rail lobbyists said.
On Feb. 2, the House T&I committee voted to exclude provisions from its proposed surface transportation bill that would have permitted increased truck sizes and weights. The bill, which delayed any increase beyond the present 80,000-pound limit for at least three years, calls for the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct a study during that time on the impact of increased truck size and weight to highway roads and bridges, and to highway safety.
As originally written, the bill would have enabled states to permit more trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds on interstate highways and expanded the use of double- and triple-trailers in states that already allow them. The study amendment (the one co-sponsored by Reps. Barletta and Costello) mirrors a similar provision in S. 1813.
Meanwhile, Railroad Day attendees learned that the bigger trucks movement had recently lost a key legislative voice. On March 6, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), who introduced the bigger-trucks bill, was defeated in a primary election. But "there will be no shortage of willing lawmakers in Congress to take her place," AAR's Knight told Railroad Day attendees. Her point: The rail lobby may have won this battle, but the struggle is far from over.
So: Knight and Nordstrom urged attendees to ask lawmakers to continue to oppose any efforts to make trucks heavier and longer, and support the existing language that calls for a U.S. Department of Transportation study in the surface transportation reauthorization legislation. Remind them, they added, that this is not just a railroad issue — it's a public safety issue (e.g., imagine a mini-van in a lane sandwiched between these bigger, heavier trucks). There's also the matter of the damage heavier trucks would cause. The proposed 97,000-pound trucks would pay only 50 percent of the cost of their damage to taxpayer-funded roads and bridges vs. the 80 percent that 80,000-pound trucks currently pay for the damage they cause, according to Railroad Day literature.
RE: Section 130. Preserving the federal Section 130 Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Program is a perennial Railroad Day objective, and finding a way to ensure that the funds are set aside for grade crossing work is becoming more and more of a challenge. A sentiment one railroader shared with me last year at Railroad Day summed up this year's concern: "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."
H.R. 7 calls for maintaining current funding levels to assist states for grade crossing safety enhancements; S. 1318 would eliminate the current set-aside for grade crossing projects and make the funding of those projects discretionary.
Railroad Day attendees were told to encourage lawmakers from both houses of Congress to support the language in the House bill.
"As the two surface transportation reauthorization measures move toward conference, states must have adequate funding levels that allow them to continue their efforts toward highway-rail grade crossing safety enhancements," according to Railroad Day literature.
Part 1 — Railroad Day 2012: In Context
Part 2 — At Railroad Day: The Issues
Part 3 — Hill Meeting Takeaways
Part 4 — When Rail Resonates