Let the partisan battle of acronyms begin: In response to H.R. 2, the surface transportation bill named the INVEST (Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation) in America Act, introduced by Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on June 3 and marked up and released late on June 18, T&I Committee Republicans, led by Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-Mo.), early on June 19 introduced a competing bill: the STARTER (Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform, Technology, & Efficient Review) Act.
Described as “a five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill to allow states and non-federal partners to more efficiently plan, expedite and undertake important infrastructure projects, provide safer and more efficient movement of goods and people, and address needs of communities of all sizes,” the STARTER Act, also proposed as an amendment during a two-day markup of the INVEST, “reflects Republicans’ surface transportation principles,” Graves said. STARTER, as of June 18, had not been assigned a number.
“The STARTER Act is a reasonable, commonsense approach to improving our infrastructure that focuses on state flexibility, reasonable regulation reform, traditional core transportation needs, preparing our system for future transportation technologies, and a greater emphasis on rural America’s often neglected infrastructure needs,” Graves said. “The Senate has worked in a bipartisan manner so far, and House Republicans remain ready to work constructively if this process moves forward in a meaningful way. The Majority’s bill that was approved in committee today isn’t going to get signed into law, and the only path to improving our infrastructure and putting Americans back to work is through partnership, not partisanship.
“I want all of my colleagues to remember why we fought for a seat on Transportation and Infrastructure—it’s because Members on this committee can work together to get things done. Although this is the first time in my 20 years serving on the Committee that I had to vote against a surface transportation bill, I hope we can get back to working on bipartisan bills that help our country’s infrastructure.
“The STARTER Act focuses on key principles Republicans have advocated for this year: Ensuring state flexibility. Streamlining the project delivery process to maximize available funding. Prioritizing core programs and functions of our existing federal surface transportation programs. Incorporating innovative developments in technology to improve our infrastructure. Providing for the infrastructure needs of America’s rural communities. Addressing the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund.”
In reality, neither INVEST nor STARTER will actually be signed into law. Both bills are really just a warm-up. The surface transportation bill that does eventually reach the President’s desk for signature (and if that happens after Jan. 20, 2021 it could be a different POTUS, depending upon the outcome of this November’s election) will be substantially different than what Graves and T&I Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and their respective Republican and Democratic colleagues introduced. There will be a House version and a Senate version, reconciled in Conference Committee. For now, comments Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner, this is little more than political posturing:
“Novelist and screen writer Raymond Chandler, Broadway lyricist Frank Loesser, and journalist Jimmy Breslin—were they still alive—would love this infrastructure bill horse race. Chandler might characterize the embedded politics ‘as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake’ (Farewell My Lovely); Loesser might trot out gambler Nathan Detroit to croon, ‘I’ve got a horse right here, his name is H.R. 2, can do, can do’ (Guys and Dolls); while Breslin would mock the ‘Red State’ and ‘Blue State’ inmates of the T&I Committee with the title of his pulp fiction, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Alas, the only element missing in this cluster kerfuffle is someone not puffing the weed and able soberly to explain where all the money will be found.”
As for H.R. 2, says Wilner, “House Democrats advancing this bill are playing to their labor base ahead of the November elections, helping rail labor extract greater contributions to their political action committees (PACs) that will in turn be donated to reelection campaigns of the bill’s sponsors. The provisions are hollow of fact-based input and are about as likely to emerge as legislation as seeing pigs fly on the 12th of Never.”
The entire STARTER bill and a summary can be downloaded below:
Rail industry associations issued statements about H.R. 2, INVEST, as soon as it was marked up and released out of Committee, and so far have not commented on STARTER. The statements in some instances were sharper in criticism to ones released on June 3 following INVEST’s introduction by DeFazio and T&I Democrats.
Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Ian Jefferies released a statement “expressing freight railroads’ disappointment in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approving the deeply flawed INVEST in America Act. The ill-conceived legislation contains numerous harmful provisions that would hamstring the rail industry for years to come and stand in the way of the industry’s ability to adapt and serve customers and the economy.”
“Today, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee continued down the unfortunate path of divisive policy rather than choosing common sense, pragmatic solutions to fund the nation’s public infrastructure,” said Jefferies. “Freight railroads are extremely disappointed in the deeply partisan, backward-looking rail title of the bill. If enacted, this legislation would undermine the ongoing modernization of the rail industry through outdated operational restrictions and capacity constraints, weakening the industry’s ability to serve its customers and the economy. This country needs proven, bipartisan solutions for infrastructure, and we will continue to work in earnest toward that goal.”
The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) noted “both positive advancements and opportunities to improve this legislation for the short line industry going forward,” said Chuck Baker, President. “We congratulate the committee, led by Chairman DeFazio, for moving ahead with a broad reauthorization of federal highway, transit and rail programs in the INVEST in America Act. There are pieces of this bill that would help short lines serve our thousands of shippers in small towns and rural communities throughout the country, but there are also unfortunately pieces that would hinder our ability to bring their products to bigger domestic markets at urban centers and global markets through our port connections. We understand that this is a lengthy process with many opportunities for stakeholder input between now and when a surface transportation bill becomes public law. We look forward to working with the House to improve the bill as it progresses to the House floor, working with the Senate on their rail title, and then working with all of Congress and the Administration as a bipartisan bill is finalized and eventually sent to the President’s desk for signature.”
ASLRRA pointed to what it calls “beneficial aspects of H.R. 2”:
“The significant increase in the authorized funding levels for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety Improvements (CRISI) program, a competitive grant program that the short line industry relies upon for significant safety and service upgrades to old, inherited track infrastructure, while maintaining the rural set-aside. We are also pleased to see the bill would remove preferential treatment for applications that over-match by providing more than 50% in non-federal funding for the project. [However], we remain concerned about the inclusion of additional non-freight rail applicants and setting aside much of the program for mega-projects, especially in the event the appropriators do not provide full funding at the authorized levels.
- “Support of state freight investments through the National Highway Freight Program, which allows states to use that funding to invest in rail projects if they so choose.
- “No changes to the current truck size and weights standards on the nation’s highways, other than a small, unfortunate 2,000-pound exemption for electric trucks. This largely avoids further distorting the market for freight services and artificially driving freight off the rail network and onto the highway network.
- “The authorization of funding for short line safety culture assessments and trainings. We appreciate Congress reiterating its commitment to continuing the successful work of the Short Line Safety Institute, which has helped make our industry safer.”
“ASLRRA also noted “several problematic provisions, and looks forward to working with Congress to ameliorate these issues before the legislation becomes public law”:
“Requiring two-person crews on certain railroads and certain trips, based on a variety of size, operating characteristics and traffic types. This mandate is unnecessary, would not enhance safety, is not based on any data, and would prove counterproductive by making the rail industry less competitive over time and thus driving traffic onto highways, which is naturally less safe and less environmentally sustainable.
“Implementing a mandate regarding blocked crossings that would reduce rail network efficiency and is unnecessary, given ongoing willingness of short line railroads to work with their communities and customers to avoid blocked crossings whenever possible.
“Requiring Surface Transportation Board mediation for commuter rail requests for track and rights-of-way access. These additional mandates are unnecessary, given short line railroads’ demonstrated willingness to consider and work with credible commuter and passenger rail proposals.
“Transforming the freight-focused INFRA program to a Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS) program that would discontinue aspects of the program that allow short line railroads to participate. The new PNRS program is now exclusively for mega-projects, lacks a small project set-aside, and shifts away from addressing freight priorities and projects.
“Banning the transportation of cheap and clean liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail. The USDOT already properly regulates the movement of LNG by rail and railroads have already proven they can safely move similar products and would use similar safety procedures for LNG.”
The National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) said that though it “is pleased to see the House T&I Committee leadership take action on the next iteration of the surface transportation bill” and “supports every effort to get a … bill enacted prior to the expiration of the FAST Act,” it has “major concerns over certain provisions in the bill, namely, labor provisions that would restrict competition and legislate a permanent mandate for certain types of rail-related work to be performed exclusively in-house, or that contracting out can only be done under certain collective bargaining agreements. These provisions would increase costs and reduce flexibility for states, commuter and passenger rail authorities, and would make it harder to initiate or expand rail service, especially in an era of limited resources.
“Additionally, the NRC shares its freight railroad customers’ concerns over numerous provisions in the bill that would create an unfriendly business environment and add new unnecessary requirements for the rail industry during an already challenging time. The NRC is encouraged by the funding levels put forth in this bill, particularly the $60 billion Rail Title and increased transit formula funds, which would positively benefit rail transit and commuter railroads.”