Listening to news out of Washington lately is like listening to one word on repeat: change. Good change, bad change, unpredictable change.
It’s clear economic growth will be a priority. There also seems to be a consensus that the new Washington wants to get rid of regulations standing in the way of economic growth. That is welcome news to many in Michigan.
One example is the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), a small federal agency that wants to impose new regulations on freight railroads that would harm their ability to invest in the rail network at the exact time that the country needs railroads to do more.
The STB, which provides economic oversight to railroads, proposed several changes to rail regulation last fall, including “forced access,” new price controls and the reregulation of certain commodities like steel, stone and hydraulic cement.
Chief among the proposed regulations, “forced access” would require railroads to open their lines to competitors — at rates and schedules determined by the government. One evaluation of a similar past proposal estimates government-mandated rail traffic controls could jeopardize $8 billion in rail revenues, undermining the ability of railroads to invest back into track and equipment, and affect an estimated 7.5 million carloads of traffic.
Railroads are the key link to getting products from farms, factories and mines to markets across the U.S. and the globe. Railroads haul one-third of all U.S. exports and nearly 70 percent of all coal moved in the U.S.
But despite the fact that freight railroads supported 1.5 million jobs nationally in 2014 and despite the fact that railroads are key to reviving domestic energy and manufacturing jobs, the STB is bowing to certain manufacturing groups and grain shippers that want to lower their rates any way they can.
If railroads can’t earn enough money to make the massive investments needed to keep up track, add new capacity, maintain locomotives and install new technology, everyone who depends on rail will suffer. Our Muskegon-based company, for example, would not exist. We are a sales and distribution agency providing OEM and replacement parts to transportation companies and we specialize in the railroad industry.
The last time the government tried these sorts of policies, railroads were so overburdened many went bankrupt. Since railroads were partially deregulated by the Staggers Rail Act in 1980 they have spent more than $630 billion of their own private dollars to maintain and upgrade their network. Train accident rates have fallen 78 percent while average rail rates have fallen 45 percent.
If the goal is to free industry to spur economic growth, we shouldn’t impose damaging new regulations on an industry that is working well and is critical to every part of the economy.
Keith Massey is president of Trinity Equipment Co. in Muskegon.