By Edward R. Hamberger
February 28, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
In a time defined in large part by polarization and rancor, one area of public policy remains remarkably popular among the American electorate: reinvigorating U.S. infrastructure.
A February Quinnipiac University poll found a whopping 87 percent of Americans support increased spending towards America’s aging and deteriorating public transportation systems. This includes areas frequently mentioned by the Trump administration – roads, bridges and airports.
Identifying and implementing programs to improve infrastructure is both complex and difficult. The private U.S freight rail industry, made strong through its own, sizeable investments, maintains a unique place in this discussion.
Against the backdrop of President Trump’s joint session address tonight, we offer a simple principle for consideration: emphasize railroads to the extent it is possible. This means leadership in multiple areas.
First and foremost, it means stopping efforts by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to undermine the successful partial deregulation structure for freight railroads. Rather than cater to narrow interests that believe competition is when the government orders one company to use privately owned facilities on behalf of a competitor, leaders should recognize the hard truth for the freight rail sector: partial deregulation in 1980 worked, continues to allow railroads to earn the necessary revenues to heavily invest to serve customers and consumers and must not be upended.
The average rail shipper today can move close to twice as much freight for about the same price it paid 35 years ago, when adjusted for inflation. The train accident rate has fallen about 45 percent since 2000, while the rail employee injury rate has fallen 47 percent since 2000.
Reregulation of private freight rail is antithetical to improving U.S. infrastructure. Misguided policy changes that would reduce freight rail efficiencies and investments, and in turn push freight to roads, only increases funding needs for those public systems.
When equipped with five members later this year, the STB has an opportunity to promote a true free market and nurture the nation’s economy in which privately owned and maintained freight railroads prosper and help other industries succeed.
Emphasizing rail also entails restoring common sense for roads and bridges and re-instilling modal equity.
Since 2008, policymakers have transferred $143 billion in general funds to the Highway Trust Fund, “free” taxpayer money for federal-aid highway program beneficiaries. Increasing commercial users’ contribution to the system is imperative. The tradition in which users of highway systems pay for that infrastructure should not be broken, and the Trump Administration should seriously consider solutions such as a weight distance fee to establish a truly equitable system.
Should tax reform serve as a vehicle for increased federal infrastructure funding, it must only be a onetime transition to making the Highway Trust Fund solvent.
A key part of this will be maintaining truck size and weight limits instituted due to concerns about the uncompensated damage heavy trucks cause to U.S. highways. Keeping sensible limits in place will prevent further damage and taxpayer subsidization of truck-induced road and bridge deterioration. It goes hand-in-hand with fixing U.S. infrastructure.
And last – at least for this discussion – a key focus of any infrastructure package will include adequate support for underfunded commuter and passenger railroads. Freight railroads back this, particularly if done correctly, infusing direct and indirect support, including streamlined permitting and public-private partnerships where the project provides significant public benefits or meets public needs.
With the population steadily increasing, there is a unique opportunity to realize the power of intercity passenger service and moving people via train generally. As Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman stated on Capitol Hill in February, this means upgrading assets such as cars, locomotives, bridges and tunnels. Boosted support for Amtrak and other passenger services means greater economic opportunities for workers, including professional service personnel that use these rail networks to conduct business, as well as those that construct and manufacture related equipment and infrastructure.
Should roads and bridges receive greater investment, rails that move people should too.
The freight rail sector likes to say we pay so taxpayers do not. While still overseen by strict federal oversight, our success since partial deregulation is unquestioned. Unlike other players in the infrastructure discussion, our involvement in this conversation centers far more on sensible recommendations than concrete requests.
We hope President Trump, leaders in Congress and federal regulators realize the power and value of rail in America.
Hamberger is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.