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— by Pat Foran, editor
At a March 12 dinner in Washington, D.C., hosted by the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association Inc., Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told railroaders that in-person meetings were a key component of effective message sending on Capitol Hill. He urged them to continue making their voices heard — in part because they have an obligation to do so.
"You folks are one-half of representative government," Grassley said.
They certainly represented this year. About 550 rail advocates participated in 360 meetings with congressmen or their staffers at Railroad Day on Capitol Hill 2014, held March 13. This year's talking points were the same as they've been the past few years: Railroaders and other rail supporters (including a number of shippers) asked congressfolk to preserve the current regulatory balance, extend the short-line tax credit, and oppose bigger and heavier trucks.
I sat in on eight meetings, four on the Senate side and four on the House side; eight meetings out of 360 do not a definitive assessment make. But what I saw and heard was consistent with what I experienced during the past few Railroad Days. Railroaders continue to get better at articulating their concerns on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers/staffers continue to demonstrate that they're listening and, often, embracing the gospel.
Witness the perennial call to preserve balanced regulation. Without a bill in place to ask lawmakers to oppose, railroaders told the "freight rail works" story (investment, growth, safety gains post-Staggers), and for the most part, they owned it. Short-liners' stories, in particular, seemed to resonate. Meanwhile, the rail lobby already had garnered plenty of support for the short-line tax credit extension pre-Railroad Day, and picked up additional co-sponsors during the March 13 meetings. But as in past years, there won't be a legislative vehicle to secure the extension any time soon.
The truck-size-and-weight issue is murkier. The rail lobby's call for lawmakers to wait for the U.S. Department of Transportation study of the impacts of heavier trucks (results due this fall) before taking up another measure to make way for bigger trucks seemed to register, but a few legislative aides reminded railroaders that the bigger-truck idea has plenty of support. (The potential safety concerns associated with bigger trucks on the highway "is what gets traction," a staffer for a U.S. senator said.)
I expected to hear more talk about crude-by-rail/tank-car safety, given the recent accidents and explosions. Surprisingly, railroaders raised the issue more often than lawmakers did, noting rail's "safety first" culture and offering up data supporting rail's CBR safety record. In response, staffers asked railroaders to keep on keeping them in the loop. We will, railroaders said, vowing to keep on representing — at Railroad Day 2015, if not before.