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Rail stakeholders: Tough road ahead for infrastructure bill

Lawmakers under pressure as existing surface transportation law is set to expire in September

Tank cars parked at a rail yard. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The multibillion-dollar infrastructure bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week, but whether it can make it through the Republican-controlled Senate to President Donald Trump’s desk is less clear.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act on a largely party-line vote of 233-188 last Wednesday, and the bill now is in the U.S. Senate. 

The act includes an infrastructure component that authorizes the federal government to spend nearly $500 billion over five years on surface transportation and infrastructure initiatives and projects. 

But some elements contained in the infrastructure component, such as mandating a train crew size of at least two members and federal studies on precision scheduled railroading, liquefied natural gas by rail and demurrage and accessorial charges, have made the bill contentious among rail industry stakeholders

“The overall $1.5 trillion [Moving Forward Act]  is expected to not be embraced by the Republican-controlled Senate. President Trump has also expressed his lack of support for the House Democrats’ plan,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition

Even rail groups supportive of the bill, such as the rail labor unions, acknowledged the challenges that the bill might have in the Senate.

“While the vote represents a victory for the safety and job security of American rail workers, the true test of support for the rail workers will come as the legislation moves into the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). “BLET’s membership must be prepared to lobby even harder to get this legislation over the finish line.”

Some stakeholders are anticipating  that Senate lawmakers will keep working on the infrastructure provisions to craft a compromise that can eventually become law. The need for both parties to pass an infrastructure bill comes as the existing surface transportation law, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act or FAST Act, is set to sunset on September 30.

“I am encouraged any time infrastructure receives attention among policymakers. However, the reality in Washington, D.C., is that there is a limited window of opportunity to achieve meaningful legislation on infrastructure and other areas of importance,” Steenhoek said. “It is therefore essential that both Democrats and Republicans work together on the front-end to develop a transportation bill that has the potential of becoming passed. Time wasted today is often not recovered tomorrow.”

Others also said they want Congressional leaders to develop a bipartisan infrastructure plan that can make its way into law.

“We will continue to engage with Members of Congress on the surface transportation provisions of this legislation, which will impact short lines and their ability to function as a key link in our national economy,” said Chuck Baker, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. “We look forward to working with members of both houses of Congress to bring a bipartisan bill to the President’s desk for signature that allows short lines to keep our commitment to providing crucial, safe and environmentally friendly service to the thousands of agricultural, energy and manufacturing shippers that depend on us in small towns and rural communities.”  

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), which disagreed with the inclusion of some provisions such train crew size, urged a bipartisan approach to the bill.

“During these unprecedented times, Congress has a unique opportunity to execute a forward-looking bipartisan vision for this nation’s infrastructure that would both aid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and make critical investments for generations to come. The House legislation misses the mark,” said Ian Jefferies, AAR’s president. “As the process advances, freight railroads urge the House and Senate to abandon controversial policies and instead work together to deliver the infrastructure funding necessary to meet our nation’s needs today and into the future.” 

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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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.