The US House of Representatives just passed S. 808, the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act. Passage came under the House suspension calendar, which needs a two-thirds vote from Members, so only those bills with broad support get on the calendar. Today's STB reform bill was no exception. It passed with just a voice vote. 

This is HUGE for the rail community, especially for shippers, who have fought hard to get this bill approved for years. The legislation had broad support from industry groups everywhere. Indeed, everyone wanted this bill to pass--agriculture, paper, forest, chemicals, energy, and more. Strongly supported by the electricity industry because of coal shipments, the bill was a top priority for APPA and NRECA. Everyone wanted it. Except for the railroads. 

While the vote was anti-climatic, it wasn't easy. The railroads have opposed this bill at every turn. We've been close before, but could never quite push it over the goal line. What's different? Several things: a Republican chairman, John Thune of SD, took over the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee this year--and this was HIS BILL from previous Congresses.  And he wanted it to happen. There were, of course, objections, including from the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Bill Nelson, who has never supported the bill. This time, however, he came around--thanks to the constant urging of Thune, plus the final approval of the railroads themselves. In the end, the railroad industry was able to water down the legislation, and was successful in pushing their top priority--positive train control, or PTC--which was tucked into the highway bill. The railroads win because they suddenly have more time to implement new and costly PTC systems, something that's been hounding their industry for years. Which is why we, rail shippers, supported their efforts in that legislative battle. So, a win for all.

The Senate has already passed the STB bill, back in the summer. Today's vote in the House is a big deal. The bill now goes to the president, who is expected to sign it.  It represents improvements at the Surface Transportation Board on many levels, including this being the first time the agency has ever been reauthorized since its creation in 1995. The Board will now grow from 3 commissioners to 5, allowing them to actually speak to each other when not in session (they can't due to current procedural rules). The bill also streamlines paperwork, increases efficiency, and generally strengthens federal oversight of the freight rail industry. In addition, the bill grants the STB for the first time its own investigative authority. All these are improvements for the little-known but important agency. 

While the legislation started out as a GOP bill, the measure was supported by both sides. During floor debate House rail subcommittee chairman Jeff Denham of CA said the bill "better regulates the railroad industry...and helps the railroads better serve its customers." He added S. 808 "reduces litigation costs and enhances reporting requirements." House Democrats called it "bipartisan, thoughtful, and relatively easy to pass." This, clearly, doesn't happen every day.

Interestingly, the bill's passage comes on the 35th anniversary of the Staggers Act, the landmark legislation that deregulated the rail industry a generation ago. Many shippers believe it was that Act of Congress that led to current conditions for shippers, who often face anti-competitive practices, high prices, and poor service everyday. S. 808 gets the shipping community back on track.