By Ian Jefferies
As Washington returns this January and the Biden administration begins to take shape, numerous policy challenges wait for policymakers. From stemming the public health and economic crises posed by coronavirus, to tackling fundamental questions surrounding trade and government spending, the list is as long as it is complex.
Noticeably, a cross section of leaders in D.C. believe an early focus on infrastructure legislation may serve as a catalyst for bipartisan compromise, not just in addressing struggling public transportation systems, but also in spurring legislative momentum elsewhere.
Given the underwhelming results of recent infrastructure efforts, one could read the previous sentence with a healthy dose of skepticism. But there is also reason for cautious optimism. After all, President-elect Biden is a proven dealmaker and infrastructure enthusiast.
While no cure-all, one of Mr. Biden’s greatest passions — the U.S. rail industry — is uniquely positioned to help meet tomorrow’s challenges. By recognizing the clear resiliency of the privately funded rail network and embracing measures to encourage railroads’ competitiveness in delivering goods and people, railroads can help lawmakers secure policy wins in 2021 that benefit America.
This is especially true in three, interrelated areas, with an emphasis on self-sustained freight railroads: reauthorizing the surface transportation law, reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and jumpstarting key parts of the U.S. economy.
First, because the 140,000-mile network is built upon $26 billion in annual private investment, and because they take freight off the road, railroads lessen the physical and financial burdens placed on public highways. They stand nearly alone as a stakeholder not seeking large sums of federal dollars in an infrastructure bill.
Thus, Congress has at least one easy job within the very difficult challenge of funding transportation networks: craft a bipartisan bill focused squarely on the challenges at hand. Railroads, alongside others, will help push such a bill to the finish line.
This means restoring the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to a true user-based fund, maintaining or expanding discretionary grant programs and codifying needed permitting reform measures. For railroads and its specific title, this means boosting funding to state and local governments for highway-rail grade crossing projects, providing Amtrak and state-supported passenger rail programs with adequate funding and encouraging innovation and deployment of technologies to further enhance safety and service.
Next, railroads — which provide an environmentally efficient way to move goods across the U.S. — can help mitigate climate change. While the industry accounts for 40 percent or more of U.S. long-distance freight volume, they are responsible for just 0.6 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, analysis shows that if 25 percent of highway freight currently moving at least 750 miles went by rail instead, annual greenhouse gas emissions would fall by approximately 13.1 million tons — the equivalent of taking 2.6 million cars off the roads for a year or planting nearly 200 million trees.
The question in Washington should be: how can we move more goods via rail to combat climate change? Exploring policies that incentivize freight-by-rail movements can serve as a tool to help the environment.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, economic recovery must be a priority — including in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture and construction. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, railroads have reliably served customers in these sectors and beyond, with traffic rebounding to more encouraging levels. Intermodal movements — the containers generally holding consumer goods that also move by truck — saw impressive volumes in the second half of 2020 due to the accelerated rise of ecommerce.
But more must be done in our uneven recovery. Railroads yet again offer an existing and reliable transportation mode for particularly affected industries, such automobile and airplane makers, logistics providers or traditional retailers. By maintaining existing policies that ensure continued private rail investment and viability, railroads can help serve these industries in need of help and support the overall recovery of the industrial economy.
Surely there are priorities for the incoming administration that we must still address, such as sustainable funding for passenger railroads like Amtrak. In providing the foundation for the vast majority of passenger rail service in the nation, freight railroads are part of this solution too.
But as a starting point and in the salient topics at hand, Washington can know this: railroads will play a large role in growing our economy and solving pressing challenges.
*Jefferies is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.