House votes to reauthorize Surface Transportation Board

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2015 - Key farm and industry stakeholders applauded the House's Thursday passage of a bill to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Board (STB) - the federal railroad regulatory agency.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, introduced the bill (S 808) to “help address the uncertainty encountered by businesses and agriculture producers who are forced to deal with the STB” and “increase the board's accountability” through 2020, he said in a release.

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The STB, a federal agency run by a three-member bipartisan board, has regulatory jurisdiction over the nation's railroad rates, mergers, line acquisitions, new rail-line construction, line abandonment, or other rail system issues. The panel was created in 1996, but was never reauthorized or reformed until now. The reauthorization bill passed the House with bipartisan support today, and cleared the Senate by unanimous consent in June.

Key provisions of the bill would set timelines and procedures for STB's dispute resolution process, give STB the authority to initiative rate review investigations, expand the board's membership from three to five, and allow board members to communicate with one another with proper disclosure.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said in a release that the bill “would improve freight rail review processes, increase the efficiency of dispute resolution, and improve transparency and accountability.

“Train service delays over the past two years significantly impacted family farmers and rural communities,” Johnson said. “Freight rates have continued to increase while service had badly deteriorated for a significant portion of two harvest seasons. This dynamic has illustrated the need for serious reform.”

Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, also welcomed the bill's passage in a release, saying the “legislation strikes the right balance of preserving a market-based structure for shippers and railroads, while also providing commonsense process improvements that will allow the STB to work more efficiently.”

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National Grain and Feed Association President Randy Gordon said the measure would improve and strengthen STB, “so it can carry out its statutory responsibilities and provide the meaningful safeguards intended under existing law.”

Chris Jahn, president of The Fertilizer Institute, said in a release the bill would “promote greater competition between railroads and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Surface Transportation Board (STB).”

The bill now goes to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature.

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