Railroads and the Deadlocked Transportation Act

Just before the House and Senate left for an August recess, they managed to pass a three month patch so that the government could continue to fund mass transit and highway projects. Funding highway projects used to be very popular and bipartisan. Lots of people were employed laying Rebar and pouring concrete and at one time the Transportation bill was very popular.

The current systems was set up under President Eisenhower in 1956. He supported a nationwide highway system that would allow the rapid movement of defense forces around the continental United States. The result was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. Below is the key procedural vote in the Senate (having to do with labor issues). The Senate then went on to pass the bill by voice vote.

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The 1956 Act set up the Highway Trust Fund that received money from a federal fuel tax. These funds were intended for the construction of highways. The original gas tax was $0.03 per gallon and that increased in increments over the years to $0.184 per gallon. A separate trust fund was established to fund mass transit projects.

The problem that Congress is now stuck with is the fact that cars and trucks are now more fuel efficient so that less money is flowing into the Trust Fund at the same time as the interstate system, roads, and bridges are deteriorating. Congress, especially Republicans, is loath to increase gasoline taxes. Instead they have used various budget gimmicks to transfer general revenue into the fund which only prolongs the crisis.

If this were not bad enough, the Senate bill combines the Transportation bill with the renewal of the Export-Import bank which many Republicans oppose as crony capitalism. Given these conflicting objectives it is no surprise that the 65-34 vote in the Senate shown below has no ideological structure whatsoever. Both parties are split internally over the bill which will make things all the more difficult to reach some sort of deal with the House in September.

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But inside this bill is a Time Bomb that if it goes off could quite literally shut down the US economy. That Time Bomb is Positive Train Control (PTC) which is supposed to be in place on the railroads nationwide by the end of 2015. In effect PTC would be a “fail-safe” system that would prevent accidents such as the 12 September 2008 collision of a Metrolink (Los Angeles system) commuter train with a Union Pacific freight train head-on while the Metrolink engineer was busy texting. Twenty-five people were killed and it caused Congress to pass a bill in October 2008 mandating PTC on the entire nationwide railroad system.

Congress appropriated no funds for the railroads to build this system even though the major freight railroads — BNSF, UP, CSX, NS — run no passenger trains and serious wrecks of freight trains are relatively rare. PTC requires a complex system of computers and wireless radio control so that engines can be remotely controlled. None of the major freight railroads have finished building this system (for example, Congress did not order the FCC to release spectrum on an emergency basis to the railroads!).

In the Transportation Act passed by the Senate there is a three year delay until 31 December 2018 to give time for the major railroads to implement PTC. A number of members of Congress such as Chuck Schumer (D-NY) oppose any delay regardless of the consequences. Unless the delay is passed, in January the freight railroads will have to decide to stop hauling toxic inhalation materials and close their tracks to commuter trains. This drastic step would put them in compliance with PTC but would violate the basic law that the Railroads are common carriers (see Trains magazine, October 2015, page 6 for a discussion). This would set off a major national crisis. Like it or not hazardous materials such as Chlorine and Sulfuric Acid have to transported by rail. They have to move or major industries will grind to a halt. Ditto the commuter rail. If commuter trains are stopped from using the freight rail lines massive traffic jams will be the result.

This whole sorry spectacle is yet another sign of how dysfunctional Congress has become.

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