Legislative Update June 2009

Railroad Antitrust Bill

First and foremost, as reported in last month’s update, we are in opposition to the Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act of 2009, S.146.

On May 21, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) made a motion to proceed to consideration of the Railroad Antitrust Bill, S.146. Congressman Jay Rockefeller, Chairman of Commerce, Science, and Transportation, called the BLET Legislative Office inWashington, D.C., asking the BLET to oppose the cloture vote and vote no on the motion to proceed on the anti-trust bill. The votes are scheduled for June 2. Please contact your senators right away and ask them to oppose the cloture vote and vote no on the motion to proceed on the antitrust bill.

Freight-Rail Funding Bill Introduced in the House

On May 20, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 2530, the Freight Rail Economic Development Act of 2009. This bill proposes to authorize the Secretary of Transportation to make capital grants to fund the construction or rehabilitation of rail switches and sidings in parts of the country with insufficient or underutilized freight-rail infrastructure. The legislation aims to restore and renew economic development opportunities in locations hardest hit by the recession.

Nadler stated: “Depressed economies, like those we have in upstate New York and many other industrialized parts of the Northeast, would benefit greatly from an improved and expanded freight-rail infrastructure. New switches and sidings could mean new jobs and opportunities for regions working to bring in investment.”

Toxic Materials, Rail Security, and Public Safety

The railroads are pressing federal regulators to cut back on trains carrying hazardous materials through urban areas. Rail companies fear that they could be liable for billions in legal claims in the case of a catastrophic incident involving a toxic spill caused by a derailment, accident, or act of sabotage. Railroads are bound by federal law to transport numerous toxic materials used in agriculture, manufacturing, and water treatment, but rail industry associations are petitioning to allow railroads to refuse to carry toxic chemicals over long distances. The Obama administration and others are opposed to this effort, stating that rail is the safest way to move these materials. If trucks were to start hauling the materials that railroads reject, the danger would be greater.

Union Pacific recently refused to transport chlorine from a plant in Utah to Texas and Louisiana, claiming that millions of people in cities such as Salt Lake City, Kansas City, and Fort Worth would be exposed to a remote, yet deadly, risk as these materials were hauled through their communities. Union Pacific claimed that Texas and Louisiana could purchase the chlorine from nearby suppliers. Other railroads and rail associations urged the Surface Transportation Board to grant UP’s request.

Scott Jensen, American Chemistry Council spokesman, stated that railroads “would effectively control the supply and demand” of materials if they could refuse to carry certain shipments and that simply cannot be tolerated.

Along those same lines, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has completed a two-year study of freight rail security. Since 9-11, federal rail security efforts have been focused on hazardous cargo; however, the GAO takes the position that emphasis must also be placed on protecting the sector’s physical and cyber assets, such as bridges and control systems. BLET First Vice-President Paul Sorrow stated that “while the recent TSA rule ensures that hazardous cargo is not left unattended, non-hazmat carrying trains are still left unsecured. One way to secure trains — hazmat carrying or not — would be to equip all locomotives with locking air brake valves. We have been pushing this idea for several years now and are hoping that it becomes a standard practice throughout the industry.”

Since 9-11, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has focused on the security of toxic-inhalation hazard (TIH) chemicals, guided by the White House’s Homeland Security Council, based on the inherent vulnerability of sprawling rail sector, and the dangers posed by intentional release of common industrial chemicals like chlorine or anhydrous ammonia.

The TSA enacted a rule last year that requires that carriers maintain a documented chain of custody for TIH cargos, and that they are never left unattended in urban areas designated as “high-threat” by the Department of Homeland Security. A rule enacted by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration requires that shippers conduct route risk assessments and, where commercially practicable, choose routes that present the least risk.

 

FY 2010 Appropriations for High Speed Rail and Amtrak

In its federal programs budget recommendations released in early May, the Obama Administration recommended $1 billion for high speed and intercity passenger rail service. This is the first of a five-year program to build on the $8 billion that was included in the Recovery Act for high speed rail. The Administration also proposed $1.5 billion for Amtrak in FY 2010. This is slightly higher than the railroad’s $1.49 billion appropriation for FY 2009.

However, the funding recommendation for the Rail and Public Transportation Security Grants program was reduced from $400 million (plus $150 million in ARRA funds) in FY 2009 to $250 million in FY 2010. The 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act authorizes $900 million for transit security grants in FY2010.

Benefit Rate Increase for Railroad Unemployment & Sickness Benefits

According to the Railroad Retirement Board, beginning July 1, 2009, the maximum daily benefit rate payable for claims under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act will increase from $61 to $64. Benefits are normally paid for the number of days of sickness or unemployment exceeding four in a 14-day registration period. Maximum benefits for biweekly claims will total $640.

During the first 14-day period in a benefit year, benefits are payable for each day of unemployment or sickness exceeding seven days, rather than four, which, in effect, provides a one-week waiting period. An initial claim for sickness must also begin with four consecutive days of sickness. However, only one waiting period is required during any period of continuing unemployment or sickness, even if that period continues into a subsequent benefit year. Claimants already on the rolls will, therefore, normally not be required to serve another waiting period because of the onset of the new benefit year.

For more details on these benefits, please go to www.rrb.gov or call the Railroad Retirement Board office at 1-877-772-5772. Claimants can also find out the address of the RRB office serving their area by calling this toll-free number or by visiting www.rrb.gov.