Time again to reason together

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor
Florio Jim

At a time when polemics is delivering knockout blows to civil discourse and collaboration, a 78-year-old former amateur boxer—still punching above his weight—has advice on peaceful dispute resolution that lawmakers, regulators, rail executives and labor leaders would do well to read, mark and inwardly digest.

Florio JimYes, meet Democrat Jim Florio, a former New Jersey governor, 15 years in Congress and principal author of the 1980 Staggers Rail Act while chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee. Florio now teaches public policy at Rutgers University amidst practicing law, promoting public-private partnerships—including one affecting Amtrak—and appearing at New Jersey Transit board meetings.

Well before alternative dispute resolution earned wide acceptance, Florio stapled himself into railroad history by focusing disparate parties on a shared goal of preserving railroads as private-sector, taxpaying entities able to meet shipper demands, improve productivity and provide solid middle-class wages and benefits.

Collaborating with Illinois House Republican Ed Madigan, Florio persuaded squabbling shipper, labor and carrier parties to embrace a framework for partial economic deregulation that salvaged a then overregulated and underfinanced rail industry from a least desired nationalization alternative.

“The stakeholders were hard talking, frequently adversarial, larger than life personalities—some of them zealots,” Florio says in describing the struggle he superintended to craft a bipartisan “rational solution” (the Staggers Rail Act) to the industry’s ills.

Florio views the current ideological-fueled political environment as destroying “synergies of interest.” He says former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich polarized Congress beginning in 1995 by instructing House Republicans systematically to pronounce Democrats as “the enemy” and term as “evil” all Democratic proposals. “You can’t be reasonable with unreasonable people,” Florio says.

Such a corrosive environment, Florio says, frustrates development of effective policies to deal with the rapid pace of economic and social change. He says the 2008 financial crisis exposed a legislative void impotent to deal with problematic credit default swaps. And current political fisticuffs, he says, prevent a nonbelligerent revision of America’s healthcare insurance model that compels U.S. manufacturers to include in the cost of goods produced—virtually alone among developed nations—employee healthcare insurance premiums, rendering American exporters less competitive.

Supportive of free markets and reduced trade barriers, Florio targets protectionism as a prescription for lower living standards. Similar restraints on technological advancements retard productivity and consumer well-being, although the downside is job losses. The solution, he says, is public policy to deal positively with those left behind in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

It is unlikely that manufacturing jobs will return to our shores, and even more jobs will be eliminated as artificial intelligence and robotics proliferate. Opinion leaders and decision makers are discussing a Universal Basic Income—a stipend much like Social Security—to ensure a minimum standard of living. Equally important, Florio says, are business-financed strategies to instruct workers in new, marketable skills.

Consider remote control locomotives and Positive Train Control (PTC), two productivity generating technologies that are unsettling for their headcount reductions. Railroad management, he says, “must educate employees on the plusses and minuses of options. As technology improves productivity, and enhanced productivity improves profits, business must reciprocate by investing in education and training for future jobs,” Florio says.

On rail labor’s opposition to one-person train crews, Florio advocates exploring with employees “the consequences” of resistance—especially with the emergence of self-driving highway vehicles that will dramatically shift the competitive balance in favor of trucks.

Then there is the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor (NEC), hosting Amtrak and New Jersey Transit—equivalent in New Jersey to a human body’s carotid artery, yet decaying under the burden of $52 billion in deferred maintenance.

“The current Amtrak model is unsustainable,” Florio says. His alternative is a public-private partnership to separate infrastructure from train operation, with a private entity funding and managing the NEC (“Is Robert Serlin Amtrak’s Merlin,” RA, February 2016).

In Congress, Florio often counseled, “Nothing happens until the pain of the status quo exceeds the pain of change.” He now may add, “The time has come for us—again—to reason together.”













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