The U.S. Senate confirmed two commissioners yesterday to sit on the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal agency that oversees rates and service within the railroad industry. It is a move that both carriers and their customers believe is necessary for action on pending regulatory proposals.
Patrick Fuchs, a Republican from Wisconsin, and Martin Oberman, a Democrat from Illinois, were confirmed as STB commissioners for five-year terms expiring on December 31, 2023. They join STB Chairman Ann Begeman, a Republican, as Begeman’s previous lone colleague on the board, Deb Miller, a Democrat, awaits renomination. Miller’s term expired on December 31.
Because Begeman had taken a stance to decline acting on major regulatory proceedings until she had a fuller complement of commissioners on what is supposed to be a five-member board, there has been little movement on issues affecting railroads and their customers for almost two years – but that could now change.
“As Congress helps the Board get closer to a full complement of five members, we believe that the agency is now one step closer to realizing its Congressional charter to maintain a proven economic framework that allows the industry to earn the revenues it needs to serve a vast set of customers, while providing appropriate regulatory protections for these same rail shippers,” Association of American Railroads president and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement.
“We hope that after careful review of pending proposals that the Board forgoes measures that limit the rail industry’s ability to invest for the future.”
Those proposals, many of which are aimed at allowing commodities such as grain, chemicals, and coal to have access to more than one rail line, have been a major concern for shippers of those cargoes for years.
Such access, shippers contend, is needed to ease the effects of rail service disruptions and to discourage railroads from charging what shippers assert are unreasonable rates.
Other issues pending before the board involve rail fuel surcharges, small rate cases, and revenue adequacy proceedings.
“The Board can now get down to business on adopting new policies that will help promote a more competitive and reliable freight rail system,” said Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical shippers, in commenting on the Senate confirmations.
“With more than $200 billion in new capital investment in more than 330 projects to grow chemical manufacturing in the U.S., it’s more important than ever that we have a freight rail system in this country that can help deliver the growth in our industry,” Dooley stated.
Along with Miller, Republican Michelle Schultz, who was nominated last year but has yet to be confirmed, would give the board its full five members.
Former STB chairman Dan Elliott said that even if Begeman continues to put major regulatory decisions on hold until the board is filled, having three members is a significant improvement.
“This is a positive,” he told FreightWaves. “It makes it much easier to do business than having one person calling the shots, and it’s more the way that a board is supposed to be operating.”