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With time running out before the current authorization of federal railroad programs expires at the end of September, it looks increasingly likely that lawmakers will postpone new rail legislation until next year and roll it into a bigger surface transportation bill.
Rail bills have yet to be introduced in either chamber — leaving insufficient time for lawmakers to take up the complex legislation in the brief window for congressional action in September. While the future of Amtrak has dominated early discussions about a rail bill, a fight between freight railroads and shippers who rely on the carriers is shaping up as a bigger stumbling block to a rail bill.
“Things are not looking good for this getting wrapped up by the end of the year,” said a lobbyist for commodities shippers who depend on freight railroads to move goods to market. “There’s just too wide a divide at this point.”
Rail operators represented by such groups as the Association of American Railroads have been waging a high-profile advertising campaign in recent months touting the billions of dollars of private sector infrastructure investment in freight railroads. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., is widely viewed as an ally of the railroads and has said he is aiming to produce a timely bill.
Businesses that move goods by rail or depend on railroads to carry raw materials — such as power plants that burn coal — are appealing to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to help them challenge what they view as unfair increases in rail cargo rates in recent years.
“Lack of competition in the freight rail industry is hurting American manufacturers and producers,” a coalition of businesses that ship by rail said last week in a letter to Rockefeller. “The nation needs a pro-competitive national freight rail transportation system to ensure fair prices and reasonable service for rail-dependent shippers.”
Democrats from West Virginia — the nation’s second-biggest coal-producing state, which is reliant on railroads to move the product — have a long history of battling the railroads. West Virginia Democrat Harley Staggers was the House champion of a 1980 law (PL 96-448) that largely deregulated the rail shipping industry.
A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office said freight rail charges for most goods had dropped considerably since changes mandated under the law took effect in the mid-1980s.