Q&A: Top Rail Regulation, Policy Stories of 2010

Q&A: Top Rail Regulation, Policy Stories of 2010

In this podcast, Associate Editor John D. Boyd shares his thoughts on 2010's biggest federal transportation policy and rail regulation stories. This is the second podcast in a five-part series.

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Q: What were the top stories you covered during 2010?

A: Well early on in the year I was part of the JOC Washington bureau team that went in and had a sit-down interview with transportation secretary Ray LaHood. We covered a whole range of issues and what we were trying to nail down was, what is the Obama administration’s transportation policy? Where it wants to go with transportation. They had already been spending a year trying to push through the stimulus programs. We were trying to go beyond that as well. We got some good guidance. But we were trying to nail that down for our readers.

There were a number of things we were covering at the same time. I particularly throughout the year covered the stimulus grants that affected freight operations from the DOT, from the EPA, army corps of engineers. I covered president Obama’s somewhat controversial inner city passenger rail program. And later in the year the landmark federal rules to curb fuel use and diesel admissions from commercial trucks. Also through the year I tracked legislation, or legislation that was somewhat stalled, that might have imposed tougher competition rules on the major railroads for the first time since their deregulation in 1980. It would have been a generational change.

I helped cover various proposals in Washington to try to inject more money into future transportation programs. Last April the JOC held its own marine highways conference, an annual conference, and LaHood spoke there. I covered his announcement that he was launching, at that conference, a marine highways grant program that was to take more containers and other cargoes off of highways and put them onto barges and inland waterway systems and along the coasts. Now again the DOT and Obama had at that point not yet proposed the multi-year transportation plan and they still haven’t as of this date. they weren’t pushing for a plan that had been offered in the House of Representatives.

So last March when I reported a statement by LaHood’s deputy John Porcari at a senate hearing that summed up the DOT’s idea of a what he called a freight hierarchy it had quite an impact on leadership. And a number of transportation groups throughout the Washington area and country picked up this Porcari statement. He basically said that the DOT’s plan was to keep goods moving on water and rail as long as possible and use trucks as much as possible just for last mile of delivery. That soon had the trucking industry up in arms. And let me bring you up to date.

More recently I covered the impact of the November midterm elections on future transportation policy, and those included of course the house takeover by republicans who can now write their own version of a long-term transportation bill. It included the surprising reelection defeat of democrat James Oberstar who has chaired the House Transportation Committee for the last four years. He had offered his a major long-term plan of his own. It never gained traction. Now he won’t even be around in the minority to help shape the next bill under the new chairman John Mica.

Q: In terms of 2011, what do you see as being some of the bigger stories in the industry?

A: Well first let’s look at the rail regulation. In the senate, senator Rockefeller had taken the lead on this for congress and he tried for the last two years to enact a law that would put railroads under new, more shipper friendly access for competition rules. It would make it easier for freight rail customers to challenge the railroads over rates or service disputes of the surface transportation board that regulates them. By this autumn however that effort was largely dead. Now the action shifts to the surface transportation board to see if it will toughen regulations under its own authority.

The STB Chairman Daniel Elliott has said that they will start to review the regulations. The STB has set a Feb. 24 public hearing to consider some for the first steps on some of the issues. So it could even have them start to regulate intermodal traffic that the STB up to now has have left alone between the shippers and the railroads to just work out contract rates and service issues. So we’ll see what the STB does and whether congress does anything additional but mainly the action shifted to the regulator and any change it makes could have a lot of impact across the railroad industry and all the various shippers that depend on it.

Now on the other thing, the broader surface transportation sector and long-term policy in Washington, the question now will be what plans the Obama administration may offer and what plans congress, for example, what the House Transportation Committee under John Mica may offer. How they are going to fund the highway trust fund in the future or other programs or perhaps the DOT special project grant that got started under the stimulus bill. This congress that is now ending has killed off the stimulus program that subsidized state bonds for infrastructure. It was called the Build American Bonds.

It also however renewed a few specialized tax breaks for transportation including one for short line railroads that expired at the end of 2009, one for bio diesel producers that truck stops had wanted to see combat, but this congress mainly left programs overall at prior levels with short term extensions. So by next spring we could see a whole new set of plans offered by Obama and mica’s house panel and industry groups hope that will could finally lead to long term legislation sometime in 2011, if so that would be a major development for the industry.