The Illinois state senate is now on record, formally asking President Obama to soon fill an empty board seat on the Surface Transportation Board with an experienced transportation hand who would also be friendly to community concerns over railroads.
The senate passed a resolution May 30 that sprang out of Chicago-area suburbs’ opposition to the acquisition by Canadian National Railways earlier this year of short line Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway.
CN wants to shift traffic off congested downtown-Chicago tracks, including the cross-country intermodal trains that run from its Pacific Ocean ports down into the U.S. heartland at Memphis, and save time by routing them on EJ&E’s suburban track system.
The communities around EJ&E fought the plan, which the STB approved in December, and some have since sued to block or change it.
CN, meanwhile, negotiated mitigation accords with many suburbs and sued as well over costly STB-imposed mitigation terms. Those challenges are pending at STB and in an appeals court. CN has moved slowly to begin shifting trains over to EJ&E tracks, as it changes some rail operations there to reduce the number of trains on that line that block street traffic at rail crossings.
But some opponents think an empty seat on the three-person board could be important to those legal appeals, since a third board member favoring the communities might help decide matters in their favor.
Sen. Linda Holmes, like the president a Democrat, introduced the resolution May 13 and was joined by two Republicans as sponsors, showing the issue crosses party lines in Illinois.
While that measure was still pending, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Richard Durbin, embraced the state action. Durbin, who is also the second-ranking Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, has sharply criticized the STB for its December decision.
STB officials have said they are constrained by their governing statute to approve or reject merger proposals based on whether they hurt rail competition for shippers, which helped CN’s purchase bid despite the arguments over its impact on area towns and commuters. Under that view, the STB was limited to setting mitigation terms to deal with the environmental effects.
STB staff has been meeting recently with Durbin concerning various other STB-related issues. Durbin said he now wants to see Congress give the agency clear authority to consider the impact of potential rail mergers on communities, as the board decides whether to approve a proposed deal.
“I agree with the Illinois state senate,” Durbin told the Journal of Commerce. “The Surface Transportation Board is an agency that most members of Congress never heard of until something important occurs locally, such as CN’s acquisition of CN-EJ&E, when you realize that they are going to make a decision that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And it turns out that they had neither the authority nor the will to deal with some of the bigger issues that were part of that acquisition. I was very disappointed with the outcome.”
Some members of Congress are trying to draft changes in the law that authorizes the STB, possibly expanding the board’s size and agency staff as Congress rewrites rail competition rules that the STB oversees.
Asked if he would want to see an enlarged regulatory board, Durbin said, “I’m more interested in the authority of the STB. Right now I believe their authority is very narrow. I think they ought to be able to look at these acquisitions and mergers from a much broader perspective, particularly environmental issues.”
The state resolution also tries to give priority in state funding to mitigation projects that a private company like CN is already helping pay for, something that could help direct state money more quickly into some of the construction projects CN is undertaking under the mitigation agreements or STB requirements.
See details of the Illinois resolution here.
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.