Chuck Baker assumed the role of president at ASLRRA five years ago this winter. This week, the Association asks Baker to reflect on the past half-decade and where he sees the industry going.
Q: Describe one of your favorite “firsts” at ASLRRA.
A: As I had come from 15 years of running other rail associations, particularly the NRC [National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association], and short line lobbying, I was blessed to know the environment and the players and the issues, so there weren’t too many surprising firsts.
My first State of the Association speech at the 2019 Annual Conference in Orlando stands out to me as a memorable first and a tremendous honor. And by the way, the state of the association was strong then as it is today!
Q: How has ASLRRA changed in the past five years?
A: The short line story has continued to become more and more well understood. It had always been recognized by individual shippers and rail media, but now more so by national groups, the STB [Surface Transportation Board], the FRA Railroad Development office, Congress, and the mainstream and political media.
The Association has engaged in new ways over the past five years on behalf of its members – addressing the environment, disaster relief, and working to ensure there are no unintended consequences for small businesses in regulations. The challenges are no longer solely from Washington, DC-based regulators and the U.S. Congress. For instance, short lines’ environmental profile should be a huge strength and we’d like it to be seen that way, but now we are also playing defense against nonsensical and counterproductive CARB [California Air Resource Board] locomotive emission rules.
Change is inevitable, and the Association will be prepared to meet those changes, just as our members are.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work and your role here at the Association?
A: It’s rewarding to pursue a worthwhile mission with dedicated, talented colleagues. Telling the short line story is frankly fun. Railroading; small businesses; energy, industrial, agricultural customers; rural areas, small towns, the heartland – that’s about as American and apple pie as you can get! And the whole team at ASLRRA loves telling it too.
ASLRRA members are team players, working collaboratively with us at ASLRRA and with each other. They compete for business when they’re located in close proximity to each other, and for transloads and for CRISI grants and for employees, but in general it’s more of a network business than a competitive business. They have more in common than not and are willing to help each other. Our supplier members are important to our success, providing solutions that meet the needs of a wide variety of challenges.
Q: What has been the most memorable moment of your tenure?
A: The short line 45G maintenance tax credit being signed into “permanency” on Dec. 27, 2020 with only seven days left before the 116th Congress adjourned stands out. There was so much drama, excitement and angst capping off more than 15 years of dedicated, relentless work by a cast of thousands.
Seeing the final text of the IIJA [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act] bipartisan infrastructure bill with the eye-popping sums for the CRISI program was similarly memorable, and it came with less angst too.
Q: What do you see happening in the next five years at ASLRRA? What goals do you have for the Association?
A: I’m looking forward to seeing short line infrastructure continue to improve as 45G and CRISI investments and state programs supplement private dollars, benefitting our customers and our supplier members. Addressing our infrastructure provides an immediate impact on improving short line industry safety, which is at the forefront of our collective minds every day.
There’s no question the environmental footprint of rail and our oldest locomotives will continue to be a massive issue, and we look forward to assisting our members in finding solutions to that challenge.
Continuing to evolve operational practices and deploying technology with an eye toward improving safety and environmental benefits will be a continued focus, and an area where the Association is prepared to engage on behalf of our members with industry stakeholders.
ASLRRA is fortunate to have an engaged Board, and talented staff who are committed to meeting the needs of our industry and our members. If the first five years of my tenure are any measure, the next five will be even faster paced, more varied in its challenges and similarly gratifying.