U.S. rail customers got a strong support message from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who said “I am committed” to getting a shipper-friendly rail regulatory overhaul bill passed this year.
Rockefeller chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. That panel approved a bill in December that reauthorizes the rails’ economic regulator, Surface Transportation Board, and rewrites federal law on competition and pricing power that has governed railroads since 1980 deregulation.
Recently, sharp criticism by railroads and a crowded Senate calendar has led observers to question whether the bill will ever make it to a vote by the full Senate. Similar legislation has not even gotten started in the House.
But in advance of an annual Rail Customer Day lobbying effort by shippers on May 5, the chairman said “the effects of deregulation and recent rate hikes again emphasize the need to fix the current rail oversight structure to support more competition and fairness for captive rail shippers.”
The STB legislation will “balance the scales at the board to make sure more shippers have access to a fair process” when they challenge railroad rates or service, he said.
Rockefeller said having a competitive and balanced transport network “is critically important” to the economy and to rural communities, a comment that follows a new Department of Agriculture study that called for addressing some rail shipper concerns.
“It is essential that we act now, during this critical time for our economy, to lay the foundation for the future,” the senator said. “Doing so will help rail expand its role and, in turn, help the economy to thrive and grow in the 21st century.”
Rockefeller and some other key senators in the rail regulatory overhaul are slated to address shippers May 5 at a kickoff rally organized by Consumers United for Rail Equity, an aggressive customer lobbying group.
Others expected to attend include Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who authored a bill last year to strip railroads of their limited antitrust exemptions. He shelved that measure while Commerce drafted its broader STB bill, and Rockefeller has said his final bill will include antitrust language before the Senate votes.
Also addressing the rally will be Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who has pushed for changes in the rail competition law on behalf of Great Plains farmers. CURE says other senators who helped author the STB bill may attend as well.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., had planned to be there, CURE officials said, but will instead be in his home state because of the oil spill crisis; Vitter has said the chemical industry needs rail reform to get out from under high captive-shipper rates.
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.