Congress is one of the American public’s least favorite entities. Recent polling data puts the approval rating of Congress at 25%. Gallup’s long-standing “Confidence in U.S. Institutions” polling shows that Congress has maintained the lowest confidence rating of the 15 institutions listed since 2010.
Approval of the institution notwithstanding, Congress is made up of individuals, and when those individuals do good things, they should be recognized. The House of Representatives recently passed a huge transportation bill that combined the reauthorization of the soon-to-expire Surface Transportation programs and variety of additional infrastructure initiatives.
The legislation was drafted by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (T&I), and T&I Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) did include some provisions that would help the short line industry, including increased funding for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety Improvements (CRISI) program, authorization of continued funding for the Short Line Safety Institute, increased multimodal flexibility for a state freight formula program, and maintenance of the current truck size and weight limits.
While the legislation contained several provisions detrimental to the short line industry, and we are so far unable to support the legislation because of this, we do note that many individual Congresspersons offered amendments in the T&I Committee and during Floor consideration to address these issues. Not all were successful, but these Members should be recognized and commended for the effort they made on behalf of the short line industry.
Representative Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa) successfully amended the legislation to maintain the existing 25% CRISI set-aside for rural areas. Representatives Greg Pence (R-Ind.) and Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) had also sought to adjust the new CRISI set-asides and preferential treatment for public projects that would disadvantage private short line access to the program.
Representative Scott Perry (R-Pa.) led an effort by numerous Members of the T&I Committee to strike the two-person crew mandate. While that effort was unsuccessful, Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) successfully amended the bill to raise the revenue of a small railroad subject to the two-person crew mandate to $40 million from the $20 million threshold in the original bill. While this mandate in any form remains our primary objection to the bill, and we will continue efforts to remove it in any final version of the legislation, we still note the incremental progress.
In addition to their CRISI amendments, Representatives Crawford and Pence worked hard on behalf of short lines on a number of other fronts. Representative Crawford successfully amended the bill to prioritize COVID-19 testing access to personal protective equipment for essential transportation employees, sought to fix unwarranted treatment of tank cars temporarily stored in the possession of railroads during transit, sought to allow railroads access to RRIF credit risk premium subsidies that were otherwise only available to public entities, and secured a good-faith promise from Chairman DeFazio to address needed clarification for tank car hazardous materials transportation and federal pre-emption to prevent the risk of a patchwork quilt of unpredictable enforcement standards.
Representative Pence sought changes in the Section 130 Grade Crossing program that would make better use of the investments and result in fewer crossing accidents over time. After amendments to delete the prohibition on transportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tank cars offered by Representatives Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Jenniffer González-Colon (R-Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico) failed, Pence sought to have the matter studied rather than prohibited with an emphasis on energy costs in the proposed study.
Representative Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) sought to strike a study looking into making transportation modes contribute a freight fee into a trust fund where proceeds would be redistributed for infrastructure investment. We have concerns about the concept of taking funds generated by private companies on private infrastructure and redistributing those across the broader transportation infrastructure landscape.
Representative Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) attempted to ensure that newly-revised Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS) would include a small-project set-aside as exists under current law in the INFRA program, which is critical because short line projects would not meet the $100 million minimum project cost in the new proposed program.
Representative Troy Balderson (R-Ohio) attempted to eliminate the provision that established a 10-minute limit for blocked crossings, which is an arbitrary, unrealistic and unworkable mandate that will reduce rail network efficiency.
Representative Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) sought to strike an unneeded provision requiring Surface Transportation Board mediation of negotiations for commuter rail usage of short line tracks, since our members already willingly engage with viable proposals and strive to be good neighbors and community partners.
Will Rogers once humorously quipped, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when a baby gets a hold of a hammer.” While that may reflect a majority opinion, it should not go unnoticed that there are many thoughtful, diligent legislators who do the hard work of aiming that hammer in the right direction. Short line railroads, their employees and their customers are grateful for that work.