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Fly-on-the-wall observations and commentary by Pat Foran, Editor
The annual event is organized by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), Association of American Railroads (AAR), National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association Inc. (NRC), 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.)
At this year's "Day," which was held March 8, I came away thinking this: In D.C., rail definitely registers, although "urgency" isn't a word that applies to much of anything there, legislatively speaking. And it rates, in part, because railroaders have gotten pretty good at delivering the rail message.
For the most part, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle do seem to get that the growth industry that is rail needs to be part of this country's strategic planning mix. But getting it doesn't necessarily lead to getting anything done. On the election-year Hill, partisanship (the raging kind) rules these days, even when it comes to things both parties seem to agree on, such as an extension of the short-line tax credit — which, as of late March, remained in limbo for calendar-year 2012. As one longtime congressman told a group of Railroad Day participants: "This is what happens when we don't work together."
On the flip side, the railroaders I observed and/or spoke with at Railroad Day were on the same page (and on message) pretty much all day. They articulated their concerns about as confidently and succinctly as I've heard in the four years that I've been a fly on the wall at this event. Few seemed to let the "No, we don't work or play well together — what's your point?" Congress get them down, even as partisanship continued to suggest that some programs the rail lobby cares most about will remain in limbo for a while. Undaunted, the railroaders I spoke with felt good about this year's Railroad Day, and many vowed to keep on climbing the Hill, working on their articulation skills and making their voices heard.
That this year's event coincided with a side show with rail-world implications didn't hurt: The Senate began voting on a two-year version of the surface transportation funding bill (the so-called "highway bill") while House leaders struggled to craft a highway bill message they could call their own.
"It was pretty exciting to be able to have that issue come up — and to have 400 high-quality delegates in there pivoting to the message," said Chuck Baker, a partner at government affairs firm Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell L.L.C. (CCH), and president of the NRC.
The Night Before Railroad Day. For some of the attendees, the messaging began the night before at the "'Twas The Night Before Railroad Day" dinner hosted in D.C. by the NRC. In addition to representatives from short lines and railroad contractors, attendees included railroad customers and congressional staffers. Also in attendance were three U.S. congressmen [Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Rick Berg (R-N.D.) and Jerry Costello (D-Ill.)] and one U.S. senator [Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)]. All four delivered brief addresses to the attendees, each acknowledging the value of and their support for rail.
Reps. Barletta and Costello offered proof that bipartisanship can work, even in D.C. Their amendment to maintain current truck-size-and-weight limits while conducting a three-year study of potential costs the increase might bring was passed by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) during markup of H.R. 7, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012. Rep. Berg, who sat at a table with a few constituents from the rail and rail customer realms, launched an impromptu Railroad Day-like meeting. ("So, what are your issues ...?") And Sen. Grassley encouraged railroaders to exercise their right to petition — a right we don't talk enough about, he said — at Railroad Day. The folks on the Hill need to hear from "the grass roots of America," he said, implying that the rail realm qualified on the "root" level. And Congress — "an island with reality all around it" — does listen when the grass roots come calling, he said.
Part 1 — Railroad Day 2012: In Context
Part 2 — At Railroad Day: The Issues
Part 3 — Hill Meeting Takeaways
Part 4 — When Rail Resonates