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Rail industry deregulation champion and former congressman Smathers dies

Former U.S. Sen. George Smathers, a strong supporter of de-regulating the railroad industry 50 years ago and chief sponsor of 1958’s Surface Transportation Act, died Jan. 20 after suffering a stroke. He was 93.

A Florida Democrat who served two House and three Senate terms, Smathers helmed the newly formed America’s Sound Transportation Review Organization (ASTRO) after retiring from the Senate in 1969.

Under his direction, ASTRO analyzed federal regulatory laws affecting railroads and the impact of taxpayer-subsidized competition on the rail industry, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). At the time, railroads had a hard time competing with trucking firms and water carriers, who were federally subsidized and subject to less regulation. More than 20 percent of U.S. railroads went bankrupt.

In the 1970s, ASTRO issued a report containing recommendations — including deregulation — on ways to restore the rail industry’s health. Many of the recommendations were enacted in 1980 when the Staggers Rail Act became law, the AAR said.

“George Smathers was a transportation visionary, and many of the public policies he advocated are responsible for the dramatic increases in safety, efficiency and productivity of our nation’s freight railroads,” said AAR President and Chief Executive Officer Edward Hamberger in a prepared statement. “We mourn his passing and extend our condolences to his family.”

Smathers is survived by his wife, Carolyn, two sons and three grandchildren.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 1/26/2007