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House hearing witnesses argue rail more relevant to economy than ever

Witnesses press for continued funding of federal grants supporting rail infrastructure

A U.S. House subcommittee held a hearing this week on rail's role in the economy. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Against the backdrop of Congress’ plans to push through a major transportation infrastructure bill, witnesses testifying at a U.S. House hearing on Wednesday spoke about the need for public partners to invest in multimodal initiatives as a way to support the freight rail industry and its workers.

An example of public and private support for a multimodal project would be the rehabilitation of the Salmon Bay Bridge in Washington, according to Tom WIlliams, group vice president of consumer products for Class I western U.S. railroad BNSF (NYSE: BRK). 

BNSF is working with the state and others to rehabilitate the bridge, which sees 30 to 40 trains crossing it daily, including passenger trains. The bridge needs a 200-foot movable span to allow more than 40,000 marine vessels to travel to and from Puget Sound, but the span’s counterweight system needs rehabilitation, Williams said in written testimony.

Investing in rail infrastructure projects, especially continued support in intermodal connections to the West Coast ports, bolsters the nation’s position in international trade, Williams said before the U.S. House Subcommittee for Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials at a hearing entitled, “Full Steam Ahead for Rail: Why Rail is More Relevant Than Ever for Economic and Environmental Progress.”

Williams said freight railroads also could benefit from a streamlined permitting process, as well as a shortened environmental review process of two years because having a timetable would help both the railroad and its customers with project planning.

“Our objective is to expand our network as a customer expands,” Williams said at the hearing.

Hearing witness Caren Kraska, president and chairman of the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad, said short line railroads like hers would benefit not only from continued federal support of grant programs such as the consolidated rail infrastructure and safety improvements program known as CRISI and the infrastructure for rebuilding America program known as INFRA, but also from preventing an increases to truck size and weight limits. 

“Personally, I expect that with an increase to the size and weight of trucks, my railroad could lose more than 50% of our business,” Kraska said in written testimony.

Kraska, who represented the interests of Class II and III railroads at the hearing, also emphasized to lawmakers the importance of short line railroads to rural America and small-town businesses.

“While my Arkansas frozen poultry shippers cannot complete the journey to West Coast ports for export without Class I service, they cannot start that journey without short line service,” Kraska said.

Shannon Valentine, Virginia’s secretary of transportation, said federal grants were invaluable to bringing all stakeholders together in the state’s project to replace the Long Bridge connecting Washington, D.C., with Virginia. The project entails replacing the existing bridge, which was built in 1904 and is currently owned by CSX (NASDAQ: CSX), with a new two-track bridge. The existing bridge will become a four-track crossing. 

When asked by a lawmaker how CSX was brought “to the table” to provide financial support for the bridge project, Valentine replied that federal grant funding helped the state engage in discussions with CSX and Amtrak. CSX, Amtrak and the commuter rail Virginia Railway Express all use the bridge.

“It really shows the power of a discretionary federal grant,” Valentine said at the hearing. 

Valentine said fixing the traffic bottleneck that occurs at the Long Bridge is important because the bridge serves as a freight connection between the Northeast and Southeast. Virginia’s international ports farther south will also benefit from relieving the bottleneck, she said. 

“The Port of Virginia in the Hampton Roads region handles 4 million containers annually from all around the world. Currently the port moves a greater percentage of containers by rail – 35% – than any other port along the East Coast, with a goal of increasing that movement to 40%. The construction of a new Long Bridge opens freight capacity on the existing bridge. Without this added capacity, freight trains alone in 2040 will experience more than 10 times the current delay,” Valentine said in written testimony.

Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department with the AFL-CIO, also echoed sentiments that federal attention and funding in intermodal connections and multimodal projects would promote job growth. 

In written testimony, Regan called for Congress, the railroads and manufacturers to develop new green technologies and for these stakeholders to work with rail employees to build and deploy these technologies to promote safety, reliability and interoperability.

But he also said these developments shouldn’t replace safety regulation.

“It is essential that rail employers are considered equal partners in promoting safety as new technologies and reimaginings of the function of the rail network are developed,” Regan said. “No one understands the realities of rail operations on the ground as well as frontline workers, and whether it be the deployment of new technologies, the crafting of new work rules or the promulgation of new regulations, the meaningful inclusion of rail workers in these conversations is the only way to maintain and promote safety now and in the future.” 

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.