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House rail subcommittee hears from industry stakeholders

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials yesterday held a hearing to gather stakeholders' perspectives on what's needed to improve the nation's rail infrastructure.

Several representatives of railroad and transportation labor organizations testified before the subcommittee members. The hearing was held as the subcommittee and committee prepare for the Trump administration's infrastructure package proposal.

Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) opened the hearing by encouraging rail industry witnesses to comment on ways to improve existing federal funding, such as the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing and railroad grant programs.

"Stakeholders can provide unique opinions on best ways to improve our infrastructure through enhanced safety, reliability, efficiency; they can discuss expansion opportunities for such programs; and offer ways to leverage investments and promote public-private partnerships," said Denham, according to a prepared statement.

Among those addressing the committee were Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and Chief Executive Officer Edward Hamberger; American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) President Linda Bauer Darr; Railway Supply Institute (RSI) Honorary Chairman Thomas DeJoseph; and Larry Willis, president of Transportation Trades Department (TTD), AFL-CIO.

AAR's Hamberger made the case for polices that encourage sustained private investment in the nation's rail network so that freight rail can continue to support the economy.

"In 2014 alone, America's major freight railroads supported 1.5 million jobs, $274 billion in economic output, and $88 billion in wages," said Hamberger in a prepared statement. "It's in the nation's best interest that the benefits of freight rail continue to accrue, but that can't happen unless rail infrastructure is up to the task. That only happens when railroads can reinvest in their networks."

To ensure a vibrant rail network, Hamberger encouraged Congress to maintain balanced economic regulations; promote public-private partnerships; encourage regulatory flexibility that allows railroads to develop and improve infrastructure safety and performance; and embrace a user-pay model that addresses modal inequities as well as rehabilitates the Highway Trust Fund.

RSI's DeJoseph emphasized to the subcommittee that the railway supply industry is vital to the economy. He stressed the importance of investment in infrastructure, sensible tax reform and balanced regulation, along with continued focus on funding proven measures that impact rail safety.

"We are pleased with the [Trump] administration's effort to scrutinize existing and proposed regulations to ensure they do not unduly burden industry and economic growth," DeJoseph said, according to an RSI press release.

ASLRRA's Darr addressed the "considerable concern that the kind of projects that will attract private capital are not feasible" in the nation's rural communities.

ASLRRA supports federal funding programs that can help stimulate investment in smaller communities, such as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) and Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant programs, as well as a rural set-aside program that will benefit short-line railroads, Darr said, according to an ASLRRA press release.

"But, given the opportunity to testify, I am here to say that the 45G short line railroad rehabilitation tax credit is the most economical and effective way to maximize investment in our portion of the national rail system," Darr added.

TTD's Willis warned lawmakers against using infrastructure investment legislation as a way to attack workers' rights, jeopardize safety or weaken the Federal Railroad Administration's authority. He also encouraged Congress to support significant public funding for transportation, including through the Highway Trust Fund.

"With strong support from the public, a promise from our President, and bipartisan interest in Congress, the time to end the lost generation of infrastructure investment is now. Failing to act has jeopardized millions of good jobs, stifled economic expansion, and worsened wage inequality," Willis said in a prepared statement. "Voters wonder why the richest country in the world no longer places a premium on high quality, modern infrastructure, and too many working families have been left behind."

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