The Senate Commerce Committee took some action Wednesday to give more authority to the Surface Transportation Board to react to railroad delays that have plagued the upper Plains.
The Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act (S. 2777) by Commerce Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.V., and committee Ranking Member John Thune, R-S.D., unanimously passed the committee. According to a news release from Thune's office, the bill would give the board more authority to work on rate disputes and service complaints.
“I am pleased the committee was able to work together to pass these common-sense improvements to the STB,” said Thune. “While there is more work to be done to address the concerns that agriculture producers and other shippers face, providing targeted improvements to the STB ensures that it functions as the regulatory body that Congress envisioned, while not stifling the railroads with additional regulations that can reduce infrastructure investment.”
Rail has become a chronic problem for grain elevators in the Plains and Midwest, leading to multiple hearings by the STB this year both in Washington and in the field, such as the recent hearing in Fargo, N.D. Farmers and grain elevators have complained about months-long delays getting grain cars. Thune moved quickly following the hearing to hold a Senate committee hearing and introduce legislation to deal with the problems.
The Association of American Railroads isn't happy about it. The AAR complained the bill "would harm the nation's railroads’ ability to move what the economy demands and deliver the service shippers expect. The railroad industry would not be able to continue to reinvest record amounts of private capital into the freight rail system if the STB Reauthorization Bill passes in its current form."
According to Edward Hamberger, president and CEP of the railroad group, the bill would cause STB to potentially cap rates and force railroads to allow competitors to use their lines.
"The rail industry believes this legislation will harm the ability of the nation’s railroads to invest in the network and improve service for our shippers,” Hamberger said. “These new restrictive regulations would be imposed on the nation’s railroads at a time when investments in capacity, new equipment and new hires are needed.”
At this point, it's unclear when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could bring the bill to the floor. Moreover, there is no companion bill comparable to the Senate legislation. It's unlikely the House would consider any action on such a bill before a lame-duck session. The House will be in session only four more days between Friday and Election Day.
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