This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google
Terms of Service apply.
By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor
For the first time since the pandemic hit in mid-March 2020, North American rail industry leaders will soon gather in Washington, D.C., for a key in-person lobbying event. On May 17, they plan to meet with members of Congress for the annual Railroad Day on Capitol Hill.
For the past two years, the event was held virtually so railroaders could still make their case for legislation or regulation that, in their view, benefits the industry. Now, being able to visit the nation’s capital this spring is something many rail industry constituents say is energizing.
When they get there, they’ll have a chance to meet members of a new Congress — the 118th opened in January — and their staffs. They’ll also be navigating a new political reality, with Republicans having taken control of the House and Democrats maintaining their majority in the Senate following the November 2022 midterm elections.
"A new Congress is always exciting," says Adrian Arnakis, senior vice president of government affairs at the Association of American Railroads. "And if the show on the House floor [over who will be speaker] is any indication, a lot of history will be made in this session. You need to be optimistic at the start of every new Congress."
With all that change comes a new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) — U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who previously was the committee's ranking member — and other committee leaders. On Jan. 27, Graves announced U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) will chair the T&I Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.
Although Graves is the new chair, he's a longtime committee member and "a good friend of rail," according to Arnakis.
In the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) will serve another term as chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
While members of the two transportation-related committees likely will focus a lot of time on legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration — the current five-year law to fund its programs and authorities expires this year — it helps that Graves and Cantwell are well-informed about the rail business, Arnakis says.
"[The AAR] also does a lot of talking with committees you don’t always think about," including appropriations, environment, ways and means, education, labor and agriculture, she says. The association doesn’t have specific pieces of legislation this year that it considers as must pass, which is "a good place to be," Arnakis adds.
Many of the industry's top legislative priorities in 2023 are not all that different than in prior years. Federal funding for transportation infrastructure remains high on the agenda this year, especially as the U.S. Department of Transportation and other federal agencies continue to roll out the $1.2 trillion, five-year Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed in late 2021.
Rail association leaders expect to be watching carefully to ensure Congress approves the same level of funding each year for rail infrastructure grant programs as was authorized by IIJA. Executives from short lines, rail contractors and suppliers in particular will be communicating with their senators and representatives to explain how important those federal dollars will be to their businesses.
One new piece of legislation rail industry leaders plan to pay close attention to this session is a multi-hundred-billion-dollar reauthorization of the Farm Bill. That omnibus multiyear law governs an array of agricultural and food programs, including commodity supports.
Signed by President Trump in late 2018, the most recent law will expire this year. Farmers and ag shippers are major customers of railroads.
"The Farm Bill is a big deal," says Chuck Baker, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). "It's sort of the agriculture equivalent of the surface transportation reauthorization bill."
The ASLRRA plans to explore whether a small program can be created and included in the Farm Bill to make funding available for ag shippers to upgrade storage facilities, grain elevators, rail spurs, sidings and loading equipment that they use to access rail service.
"We think this proposal could be a win-win for ag shippers who are huge customers of ours and obviously very important to the country," says Baker. "We've gotten a bit of an initial positive response from some members of Congress that this could be an attractive idea."
Other matters high on the ASLRRA's watchlist include full funding of grant programs — the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI), in particular. CRISI is the one federal funding program that has direct eligibility for short-line applicants.
Administered by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the program funds projects aimed at modernizing freight- and passenger-rail infrastructure. Historically, 40% to 50% of CRISI grant funding is awarded to short-line projects in a given fiscal year, Baker says.
Under the IIJA, CRISI dollars fall under two categories: the guaranteed funding of $1 billion per year (up from $360 million before IIJA was passed) and another $1 billion that Congress can provide in discretionary funding.
In September 2022, the FRA issued a notice of funding opportunity for about $1.5 billion in CRISI grant funding for FY2022. Applications for that pot of money were due in December 2022; grant awards have yet to be announced as of press time.
"A huge focus for us in 2023 is trying to get Congress to do as much as possible in funding for CRISI," says Baker. "The good news is that CRISI is very popular among applicants and it’'s very popular in Congress. So, to ask Congress for more support for CRISI is not the hardest ask in the world. It’s a pretty darn good program."
Other topics that ASLRRA leaders will advocate in D.C. this year include:
• Natural disaster relief for short lines. Currently, no federal program adequately assists short lines with the cost to repair rail infrastructure damaged or destroyed by natural disasters. This topic rose to the surface last year after Hurricane Ian struck the Florida Gulf Coast and decimated the Seminole Gulf Railway. When the storm cleared, the short line was faced with an estimated $28 million in damage.
ASLRRA wants Congress to create an FRA-administered program that would help small railroads like the Seminole Gulf recover from such devastation. Although a bill introduced late last year by U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) — the Short Line Railroad Relief Act — didn't pass, Baker hopes one will see the light of day this year.
• The short-line tax credit known as Section 45G. Made permanent in the federal tax code in 2020, 45G provides short lines a tax credit of up to $3,500 per track mile for completed rail infrastructure improvements. The credit has been fixed at $3,500 since it was created in 2005. "No one worried when inflation was 2% a year, but that $3,500 doesn’t buy what it used to," says Baker. "At some point, we’ll need to look at increasing that cap."
• Truck size and weight. Railroads of all sizes remain on high alert for any attempt in Congress to increase the current truck-size-and-weight limits. “People who want bigger trucks push that issue very hard,” says Baker. “We think most people are against bigger trucks, and we’ve tended to win that fight for the past 40 years. But it’s a fresh risk every year.”
Meanwhile, Railway Supply Institute (RSI) members are hopeful that 2023 will be the year the U.S. Freight RAILCAR Act — short for Freight Rail Assistance and Investment to Launch Coronavirus-era Activity and Recovery — passes Congress. Introduced and reintroduced a few times by U.S. Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) and Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), the bill would provide a time-limited 10% tax credit to freight rail-car owners that buy new rail cars, says Nicole Brewin, RS'’s senior vice president of government and public affairs.
The legislation would incentivize investment in the North American freight rail-car fleet and help reduce the rail industry’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
"We are working with Congressmen LaHood and Schneider to get the bill reintroduced — hopefully in February," Brewin says, noting that RSI soon will release a report detailing rail suppliers' impact on the national economy.
Another topic that has held RSI's attention: the SAFE TRAINS Act. That bill was introduced in the 117th Congress to prohibit freight rail cars from operating on the U.S. freight railroad interchange system if the cars were manufactured in, or use sensitive technologies from, a “country of concern” or an affiliated state-owned enterprise.
Language in the bill was included in the IIJA, and would require that certain percentages of freight rail-car content be domestically sourced. The FRA is working through the rulemaking process on that issue, according to Brewin.
"For us, SAFE TRAINS is a matter of safety and security. But it’s also about having true competition within the market and not have subsidized, state-owned enterprises coming in and decimating the North American supply industry," she says.
Besides legislation, railroaders will be monitoring any movement on the regulation front. Two points of interest that will be under their watch: the FRA's proposed train-crew mandate and that agency’s not-yet-issued amendments to rail safety worker training rules.
Of particular concern is the FRA's proposal to require railroads to have at least two crew members in the locomotive cab while operating a train. Class Is, which negotiate crew size at the bargaining table, typically have two people in the cab.
However, many short lines, commuter railroads and Amtrak trains operate safely with just one crew member, AAR and ASLRRA officials have noted. And there's no safety data to support the FRA’s claim that two crew members would be safer than one, they say.
Moreover, adding enough personnel to cover the mandate would be cost prohibitive for many small railroads, which already operate on thin margins, Baker says. The FRA's notice of a proposed rulemaking filed in July 2022 indicates that seven short lines would not qualify for an exemption under the rule, but Baker believes that number is really closer to 200.
"The rule would force hundreds of railroads to change the way they operate trains today," says Baker.
The ASLRRA in December presented data to the FRA showing the impact the rule would have on short lines, Baker notes. He hopes the FRA will take that input into account before publishing the final rule.
Also of great interest to short lines and contractors: an FRA plan to amend its "Training Qualification and Oversight for Safety-Related Railroad Employees." In 2014, the FRA established minimum training standards for safety-related railroad employees and required rail carriers, contractors and subcontractors to develop and submit training programs for approval.
For the most part, the training rule treated Class Is, short lines and regionals the same. Since the rule was established, both the ASLRRA and the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) have asked the FRA to modify it to relieve small railroads and railroad contractors of “substantial and unnecessary regulatory burdens.” Modifications also would provide some flexibility when it comes to compliance, according to joint comments the associations submitted to the FRA in November 2022.
Both associations were pleased when the FRA agreed to consider some changes to the rule, says NRC President Ashley Wieland.
"We are waiting to hear back from the FRA on what will go forward," she says. "By and large, our relationship with the FRA has been positive, and we want to maintain safety. But we don’t want the rule to be burdensome for smaller contractors."
What’s to come from the FRA also has implications for passenger-rail constituents. So, the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) is keeping a close eye on any new developments.
The RPA — which focuses much of its attention on Amtrak — will be waiting for the FRA to make its choices on the first crop of applicants for the new intercity passenger-rail corridor identification and development program, says Jim Mathews, the association's president and CEO.
The IIJA directed the FRA to identify regions where new Amtrak service could be established. As part of that effort, the IIJA also created the Interstate Rail Compact Grant Program, which will provide federal financial assistance to states that set up interstate rail compacts to advance intercity passenger-rail service.
In December 2022, the FRA announced it was ready to begin accepting applications for the corridor program, which are due in March. Mathews is hoping the FRA will identify corridors in states that want intercity passenger-rail service but currently have no access to it.
At the same time that it’s identifying new corridors, the FRA has begun an IIJA-mandated study of Amtrak long-distance service and where it might be extended. In November 2022, the FRA kicked things off by setting up a website dedicated to informing the public about the study.
Part of the process also will include FRA staff holding about two dozen workshops around the country to educate local, regional and state parties interested in long-distance passenger-rail service. The agency has little time to get it all done: By October, it needs to submit its findings to Congress.
The RPA will support and contribute to both those FRA processes, Mathews says.
Beyond that, the association will spend time on what Mathews hopes will become law: a set of "rights" for rail passengers. The RPA issued a “soft opening” of its idea at a rail conference in Montana last year.
According to the RPA, rail passengers should have the right to access reliable, on-time service; the right to frequent and practical service; equal access to trains and stations for people with disabilities or special needs; the right to "essential human services" onboard; and the right to "essential" consumer information.
"There’s a broad spectrum of rights that we believe all passengers should enjoy," says Mathews. "There's a bunch of individual legislative initiatives that we’ll try to pursue, and if we add them all up, they would fall under the umbrella of a passenger’s bill of rights."
To be sure, Mathews and many other rail industry leaders have an extensive watchlist and a long wish list for this year’s Congress to achieve. But they’re also realistic about how much legislation they think will (or won’t) pass, given the bitterly partisan divide between the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate.
In addition, House Republicans have promised to launch a plethora of hearings and investigations into the Biden administration.
"The conventional wisdom is that not a lot will get done," says ASLRRA’s Baker. "You can already see that from the speaker fight; it's a Republican House that will struggle to stay unified. It's hard to imagine there will be a lot to agree on with a Democratic-controlled Senate. So, yes, I subscribe to the conventional wisdom."
Email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.