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Rail bill sidetracked
[June 17, 2009]

Rail bill sidetracked

Jun 16, 2009 (Agweek Magazine - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A last-minute move by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has temporarily derailed proposed rail antitrust reform legislation that had been on track for a June 2 vote on the Senate floor.

The Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act, drafted by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel, had been slated to reach the Senate floor June 1 and voted on the next day when Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee, urged other senators to vote against the separate antitrust bill because Commerce was crafting a "robust" package that is expected to add provisions to reform rate and competition policies.

"We hope to shortly have a bipartisan package that reforms the (Surface Transportation Board) and repeals the railroads' antitrust exemption available for the consideration by the full Senate," the senators say in a joint statement filed just two hours before the Senate was to consider the Kohl bill.

The delay may appear to be a victory for the railroads, but according to Robert G. Szabo, executive director and counsel for Consumers United for Rail Equity, the net result will be a legislative package that provides broader protections for rail shippers.

"We certainly want Sen. Rockefeller to have a chance to do his part of this reform effort, and we knew that these bills needed to be melded at some point in the process," he says.

Rockefeller has been a leading advocate of rail reform in the Senate since the late 1980s, when he challenged, as a first-term senator, the implementation of the Staggers Rail Act, Szabo says.

"He immediately came out on the side of the captive shippers," he says.

"And the reason he did what he did, vis-a-vis Mr., Kohl, is that he was afraid that there wouldn't be time in the agenda of the Senate for the Senate to have a vote, both on the Kohl bill and on his reforms of the STB." Policy change There are two sets of STB policies that Rockefeller is expected to address in his portion of the package. One is the competitive activities of the railroads that are used to block rail customers' access to a competing railroad. While this could be managed through reformed antitrust law, having it spelled out in the Rockefeller bill would be best, with the antitrust bill as backup, Szabo says.

"That's the right way to do it, so that if the regulatory agency doesn't do what it's supposed to, you can bring an antitrust action," he says.

The second set of policies controls the means by which rail customers can challenge, through the STB, the rail rates they are being charged.

At present, a "captive shipper," one that doesn't have access to competing rail services, can challenge a rate, but the process is considered by CURE members to be unduly expensive and "impenetrable" to rail customers.

"It's become a barrier to any kind of relief," Szabo says. "The Rockefeller package has reforms of the competition issues, reforms of the rate challenge process and reforms and amplification of the board itself." The question now is what shape those specific reforms will take in Rockefeller's bill.

"That's what the pull and tug is about," he says. "The reform of the commission itself -- maybe even to include a name change -- how many commissioners, what powers do they have and what monies do they have for staff; all that's going to be done." Congress recesses June 26. Szabo hopes the completed package is ready within three or four months.

"We very much want to see this package put together this summer so it's ready for consideration in September or October," he says.

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