WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2014 – A bill aimed at reforming the Surface Transportation Board, a government agency charged with resolving railroad rate and service issues, was unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee.

The bill, S.2777, the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2014, was introduced by committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., and ranking member John Thune, R-S.D., last week. The measure faces an uncertain future as it may not be taken up by the full Senate or the House in the short time left in the 113th Congress.

The bill would expand the STB, the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission, from three members to five, create a voluntary arbitration process for disputes between rails and shippers, and allow the board to initiate some of its own investigations instead of waiting until a problem “really becomes a crisis,” as Thune put it in an interview with Agri-Pulse last week.

“We’re hoping that (the bill) will pave the way, probably not in the near term, but in the long term, for a better job by the STB of being able to anticipate and troubleshoot these problems when they occur and deal with them in a proactive way,” Thune said.

Rockefeller said the bill is needed to protect shippers who use the rail system to move their products, which might range from grain and chemicals to automobiles and equipment.

“While the freight railroads talk a big game about how they are building out their networks with lots and lots of money to better serve their customers, I still think they have a long way to go,” Rockefeller said today at the bill’s markup.

During a short debate, several Republican members voiced concern that the legislation may have moved through the committee too quickly.

“I would hope that we continue to talk about this . . .  and have more time to have input than I feel like we’ve had so far,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who serves as ranking member on a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the STB. “I think we did not really get into the details of this in a way that I’d really like to, and I hope we continue to work on this.”

“We’re continuing to learn about a situation that needs to be dealt with but I think there are clearly two sides to the story,” Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said. “I will also support the bill going forward, but we all know that we’ll have to take this up next year. For me to be satisfied, I think we need to make adjustments to it.”

Coats’ comments of the likelihood of not seeing this bill again until next year were echoed by Thune, who predicted the debate about STB reform won’t simply go away.

“Even if we don’t get it done this year, it tees it up for next year, and I think this is a debate that’s going to continue,” Thune said in a video interview with Agri-Pulse last week.

Some of the haste to enact the bill stems from issues of rail availability in the upper Midwest. Farmers in the Dakotas and adjacent states continue work to ship the 2013 grain harvest as the 2014 wheat harvest wraps up and the corn and soybean harvests approach.

In compliance with a STB order from June, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad has been issuing weekly reports on loading delays and railcar backlogs. Its Sept. 12 report showed almost 1,900 past-due rail cars across the nation, 1,608 of which are due in Montana, North Dakota or South Dakota. Data from Canadian Pacific, the other primary rail provider in the region, have not been as clear because of a new car-ordering system that encourages the cancellation of old orders.

On his website, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the reduction in CP’s open requests “appears to be primarily the result of orders being canceled, rather than fulfilled.”

Thune said he feels this bill is good legislation that will empower the board to act rather than react. He noted the 70 letters the committee received from stakeholders interested in the legislation and pledged to keep them involved in the process.

“Chairman Rockefeller and I have certainly differed on some of the rail reforms measures and other things that we’ve discussed, but we do agree that it makes sense to provide targeted improvements to the STB to ensure that it functions as the regulatory body that Congress envisioned while not stifling the railroads with additional regulations that can reduce infrastructure investment,” Thune said at the markup.


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