Two activist rail shipper groups say they see new signs that the Senate could move on long-dormant rail competition legislation in the final months of the current Congress.
Both the Alliance for Rail Competition and Consumers United for Rail Equity said recent signals from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee indicate that key lawmakers are trying to reactivate the bill that passed the committee last December.
CURE said a scheduled Sept. 15 hearing by that committee on "the federal role in national rail policy" will be a chance for shippers to air concerns about lack of competitive access to rail transportation options. CURE tied the hearing and the need for new rail legislation to an investment program proposed last week by President Obama that would include funds for rail infrastructure upgrades.
By The Numbers: U.S. Rail Cargo.
Glenn English, CURE's chairman, said that before Congress considers more funding for rail systems, lawmakers "need to pass meaningful rail reform legislation that would protect consumers from the railroads' monopoly pricing power." He said the Commerce Committee hearing, which was just put on its schedule last week, "shows the Senate is serious about passing legislation this year to address the problems posed by a lack of competition in the freight rail industry."
In the face of sharp criticism from freight railroad executives, the Commerce panel's legislation has never been scheduled for action by the full Senate, although Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., declared it a priority for passage in 2010. Rail officials fear it would tilt regulation too much in favor of shippers in issues of freight routing and customer challenges to rail pricing, thereby hurting the carriers' profitability.
On the House Side, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., has said he is working with Rockefeller on the bill's final language before it moves in the full Senate, and that the House would pass an identical version so it could quickly go to President Obama for his signature.
Railroad officials have sometimes said they would prefer no legislation to the one Commerce proposed. Charles W. Moorman, the chairman, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern Railway, last week told the Dahlman Rose investors' conference that behind-the-scenes negotiations have not produced bill language that satisfies the carriers, so he thinks the issues will have to wait for 2011 and the next Congress.
However, the ARC last week sent its members a newsletter update saying "we have recently heard from the staff of the co-sponsors of the Rockefeller bill . . . that they are working on the legislation in an effort to move it forward and meeting with all interested parties. They report that they are fully committed to enacting this legislation this year."
The ARC notice said the group had been in contact with the Senate staffs of co-sponsors Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., ranking committee Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas, and John Thune, R-S.D. It said congressional staffs during the August congressional recess have been "working on the many issues that the House and Senate will consider prior to leaving in October to campaign and during the much anticipated lame-duck session following the elections in November."
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.