Op-ed: Infrastructure bill Gets it Right on Rail

  • By Joy Esparsen

It’s a busy autumn for our leaders in Washington, D.C. Among urgent tasks like raising the debt ceiling and funding the government, they are working on historic infrastructure legislation while also addressing economic recovery and climate change.

These issues are complex and crosscutting. The transportation sector, for example, is a critical pillar of our economic recovery and also the leading contributor to U.S. emissions. It’s important for policymakers to get the nuance right on these challenges.

That’s why it’s good news that the Senate, including Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in August. If passed by the House, the bill will support long-term economic growth and help the U.S. compete abroad. Critically, it also gets the nuance right when it comes to our nation’s railroads.

Six different freight railroads and just under 2,000 miles of rail track connect New Mexican counties from McKinley to Eddy to Santa Fe. These railways are vital economic corridors that support jobs and development, hauling 40 percent of U.S. intercity freight while accounting for under 2 percent of transportation-related emissions.

They’re critical to facilitating international trade, a key economic driver for our state. Not to mention they take 8 million trucks off New Mexico roads annually, relieving some of the burden on our underfunded roadways.

The infrastructure bill gets a few things right for freight railroads, starting not with funding but with getting out of the way. That’s because, unlike other modes, railroads self-fund the maintenance and expansion of their networks with little help from taxpayers. BNSF, for example, which has the largest rail network across New Mexico, spent a massive $80 million on its infrastructure statewide in 2019.

For our many rail-served industries and producers, this spending means more efficient connections and a competitive advantage. Consistent investment also helped railroads stay resilient and nimble throughout the pandemic, according to researchers from the Northwestern University Transportation Center.

Instead of funding, freight railroads need balanced oversight. The future of transportation, from just-in-time delivery to e-commerce, is quickly changing, and rail’s competitive environment is as tight as ever. Any new regulations that make it harder for railroads to compete, or innovate, would undermine their ability to earn enough to keep investing. Ultimately, this disinvestment would push freight from railways to highways.

The act also strengthens our nation’s railroads by delivering big for passenger rail. It provides $66 billion to Amtrak — up from a $2 billion budget annually — to improve service and expand to new cities.

From the perspective of counties, the infrastructure bill would also give $845 million for improvements where roads intersect with railroad crossings and another $5.5 billion for infrastructure grant programs. Freight railroads and counties have partnered on rail safety, both advocating for this expanded funding.

With U.S. freight demand expected to rise 30 percent by 2040, railroads will be even more important to our economic future. Especially in this moment, rail is a tool that could address multiple national goals from climate change to economic recovery. It will get people back to work, bring growth to our communities, and help build more resilient and sustainable transportation systems.

Let us all push our representatives in Congress to adopt the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and support our nation’s railroads.

Joy Esparsen is deputy executive director of the New Mexico Counties Association.

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