Legislative Update December 2009

Railroad Antitrust Legislation

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is still working on its broad rail regulatory reform bill and has been showing what may be final parts of the bill to stakeholders; however, some sources in the rail industry have stated that those parts did not include antitrust language. The Senate Judiciary Committee aides had expected some version of the bill that was headed to the Senate floor last May (S-146, The Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act), which would strip railroads’ limited antitrust exemption, to be included in the Commerce Committee’s legislation. The challenge is to come up with a bill that both railroads and shippers can accept. For a more in-depth background on railroad antitrust legislation, see the section entitled “New Energy for Battle Over Rail Prices” in the Legislative Update in the Spring edition of the Auxiliary newsletter .

 

Health Care Reform – Say No to Taxation of Benefits!

Although the BLET has remained mostly neutral on the proposed Health Care Reform, BLET members are urged to call their Senators to ask them to vote against any attempt to tax the health care benefits of middle class Americans. The Senate voted on November 21 to approve a motion to proceed with debate on a health insurance bill entitled “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” which is designed to provide all Americans with affordable health care coverage and transform the current health care system to contain costs. The Act  currently includes a provision that would impose an excise tax on so called “high-cost” health plans, which would be shifted onto workers and the middle class, and could force severe reductions in benefits or excessive cost increases.

BLET National President Paul Sorrow stated: “While we agree that all Americans deserve health care coverage, it should not come at the expense of other American workers.” Please call and/or e-mail your Senators and inform them of the burden that the excise tax provision would put on working families and urge them to work to have the excise tax provision removed from the final bill.

Surface Transportation Authorization

In early November, President Obama signed into law a continuing resolution that extends through December 18 the existing 2005 Surface Transportation Act, SAFETEA-LU, which expired on September 30, 2009. The continuing resolution funds transit programs at the FY 2009 levels.  The Senate and the House are in a standoff over how to proceed with a long-term bill for Transportation Reauthorization. Last July, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee (EPW) voted for an 18-month extension to the existing legislation; however, Senate transportation leaders later offered a 12-month extension, and most recently, EPW and the Commerce and Banking Committee urged Senate leadership to accept a six-month extension. Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar is against the idea of a delay just for the sake of delay and has consistently insisted on going ahead with his full $500 billion, six-year reauthorization bill which he had hoped to have approved by Congress on September 30 when the old bill expired. However, because the House Ways & Means Committee had not taken up the revenue portion of Oberstar’s bill, he agreed to extend the current bill until the end of 2009.

EPW Chairman, Senator Barbara Boxer, has asked the Obama administration for help in brokering a deal to get a new transportation bill moving through Congress. She states that her extension would include a provision to again make available approximately $8.7 billion in unused funds, which were allocated for highway projects. Boxer states: “Once we pass a multi-month extension, we will continue our bipartisan efforts to enact a multi-year surface transportation bill.” She goes on to say that an extension will ensure the program can continue with sufficient funding while Congress concentrates on a comprehensive and transformational surface transportation bill.

New Jersey Transit Rail Workers Join FRA “Close Call” Pilot Program

In November, New Jersey Transit began to participate in the Close Call Project, a safety pilot program designed to give rail workers the ability to voluntarily and anonymously report their observation of incidents that could have resulted in an accident but did not. Reports are made directly to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Workers at that Bureau conduct interviews, then edit out any information that would identify an employee, and send it to a labor management team at New Jersey Transit. The team uses the data to make recommendations to prevent future mishaps. New Jersey Transit is the third railroad, and the only passenger rail service, to become involved in the project. Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific are already participating.