Mica, Others Warn STB Over Rail Regulation

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica and several other key members of that panel from both political parties are warning the Surface Transportation Board against taking steps that hurt railroads' ability to invest in their networks.

The warning comes ahead of STB hearings Feb 24 and May 3 that could lead the agency to toughen some of its policies on railroad cargo exemptions and granting competitive access to other rail carriers for long-distance shipments.

It also comes the same week President Obama doubled down on his infrastructure investment plans and the intercity passenger rail expansion that mostly depends on access by Amtrak or similar operations to freight-owned tracks. And several railroad CEOs visited the White House this week to discuss their concerns over regulations with the president's chief economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee.

In a Jan. 24 letter to STB Chairman Daniel Elliott, Mica, R-Fla., and three other committee leaders said, "any policy change made by the STB which restricts the railroads' abilities to invest, grow their networks and meet the nation's freight transportation demands will be opposed by the committee."

Also signing were T&I's ranking Democrat, Nick Rahall, W. Va.; rail subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and that panel's ranking member, Corrine Brown, D-Fla. The committee released the letter late this week.

The T&I leaders told Elliott freight rail lines have spent more than $480 billion to improve their networks since the 1980 deregulation of that industry. "This could not have been done - and will not be done in the future - unless the STB maintains the current regulatory balance" that came with deregulation, they said.

While the House committee was trying to wave off the STB from taking any action that could cut into rail profits, key senators this week re-introduced legislation to tighten rail regulation and end the limited antitrust exemptions railroads enjoy.

Last fall, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., had prodded Elliott to revamp STB regulations to be more shipper-friendly and give railroads less market control when it appeared his rail competition bill was stalling out ahead of last fall's election.

- John D. Boyd, The Journal of Commerce.