SunshineBYLINE: By Clayton Boyce

SunshineBYLINE: By Clayton Boyce

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

There is change under way at the Surface Transportation Board. It will take time to learn whether the change is window dressing or something more substantial. But with a brief press release issued last week, new STB Chairman Roger Nober signaled that it is not business as usual at the quasi-judicial board that oversees the railroad industry.

On Jan. 30, for the first time since 1996, the STB commissioners will hold an open voting conference for several pending cases. Nober, Vice Chairman Wayne O. Burkes and Commissioner Linda Morgan will gather in a hearing room in the K Street headquarters of the board in Washington, D.C. Interested parties and the public will be able to watch as each case comes before the board and the commissioners discuss, vote and comment on their decisions.

"I am confident that the board and the stakeholders will find that there is a benefit to it because it will give the commissioners an opportunity to comment on the cases and explain their thinking on them. There are several cases that would benefit from some commentary," Nober said. "It is the norm for doing business in other similar agencies. It was the norm in this agency. As I like to say we are kind of going back to the future."

Former Chairman Morgan might argue that the change is more cosmetic than substantive. Under Morgan the board did hold open voting sessions for major rail mergers. But for more routine business, Morgan promoted "notation voting," in which the commissioners met privately and separately and in writing. With notation voting, the commissioners received a draft decision crafted by staffers. The commissioners exchanged comments in writing before voting.

Open voting conferences "can be wasteful government. The current practice of notation voting that we and other agencies use ... is a prime example of efficiency and good government. When the board finds a particular need to hold an open voting conference, it holds it," Morgan said in defense of notation voting in 2001.

Nober said the change is in response to comments he heard during his confirmation hearing about the need for openness at the STB. He also said there was no parliamentary wrangling involved in planning the Jan. 30 open voting conference. He suggested and the other commissioners concurred that an open conference would be beneficial, he said. He emphasized that he has not mandated regular open conferences and that in some cases where deadlines loom or the impact is small, the board will again use notation voting.

Vice Chairman Burkes first pushed for open voting in a speech to the Transportation Research Forum in July of 2001. "We are handicapped because we must communicate by memo. We ought to have public hearings and sit down and dialogue with staff to learn how they arrive at their recommendations," Burkes told the group.

Notation voting did not start with Morgan. From time to time the STB's predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission, employed notation voting. Burkes' move to require open voting conferences was one of several controversies that erupted over the last several years about secrecy at the STB.

Last June, Morgan and Burkes attended a closed-door and off-the-record roundtable discussion at the Federal Railroad Administration to explore "where the rail freight industry is headed." The public and the press were excluded from the meeting with FRA chief Alan Rutter, railroad representatives, Wall Street analysts, unions and academia. Two railroad customers - DuPont and intermodal marketing company The Hub Group - were permitted to attend. Closed-door meetings of the Railroad Shipper Transportation Advisory Council with STB commissioners also spurred questions in 2000. With bright sunshine in the dead of winter, it seems like the weather is changing.