Legislation to expand the Surface Transportation Board and its powers to regulate the railroad industry passed the Senate Commerce Committee last month, just days after being introduced by committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and ranking minority member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
The bill would expand membership of the STB from three to five commissioners, and permit commissioners to talk to each other without requiring a public hearing. It also would set timelines and streamline procedures for STB rail rate reviews, which can cost more than $3 million to litigate and take over three years to resolve.
A wide range of industry groups that are supporting the legislation have organized themselves into a new group called the Rail Customer Coalition.
The Association of American Railroads has said it will not oppose the legislation, which as written leaves out a provision mandating reciprocal switching which was included in earlier reform legislation that drew opposition from the Class I railroads.
Following the committee vote approving the Thune-Nelson bill, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association issued a somewhat ambivalent statement that it “appreciates the open door policy that has been maintained by the Senate Commerce Committee,” but did not state outright its approval of the legislation.
With no opposition on the horizon it seems the bill should be easily approved by the full Senate. However, no similar bill is currently pending in the House of Representatives. Without a House bill, in order for the legislation to end up on the President’s desk it would need to be attached to another Senate bill and survive a conference committee reconciliation of House and Senate versions of that measure.
Sen. Thune reportedly said that he intends to attach the STB reform bill to the legislation enacting a new national transportation funding program, which his committee is responsible for developing for the Senate. When and if that happens this year is anyone’s guess.