Reject rail rules that limit New London's potential

As national politics coverage has dominated the news in recent weeks, you may have missed a local story that means good things for Connecticut’s economy. Dozens of Connecticut government and business leaders – including U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, Congressman Joe Courtney and myself – gathered in Willimantic this fall to kick off a $12.8 million upgrade to Connecticut’s short-line freight rail infrastructure.

The project, funded by a TIGER VII grant and contribution from the New England Central Railroad, will increase capacity so NECR’s main line can handle modern carloads up to 286,000 pounds, creating the first and only north-south heavy freight rail corridor in the state.

Leaders at the event underscored what this upgrade will mean for Connecticut’s economy.

“That is an enormous increase from the current capacity and will allow the Port of New London to greatly expand the amount of freight cargo that can be shipped in and sent out by rail across the region,” said Courtney. “This development is bound to expand industry and create new jobs across eastern Connecticut as shipping expands.”

In Connecticut, where the majority of the state’s eight railroads are regional or short-line carriers, public-private partnerships like the NECR upgrade are crucial to modernizing infrastructure and equipment to connect to the national freight rail network and markets all across the United States.

At the national level, freight railroads are already leaders in infrastructure investment. Class I railroads have spent about $26 billion annually over the last five years on track, equipment, technology and additional capacity to meet growing freight transportation demand. Railroads typically reinvest at six times the rate of the average manufacturer because running a railroad is capital intensive.

The benefits of private sector investment in the freight rail network ripple all across our regional and national economy. New research from Towson University demonstrates that freight rail’s investments created more than $274 billion in economic activity while supporting approximately 1.5 million jobs in 2014, the year studied.

Making this possible is a balanced regulatory framework that allows railroads to run like other businesses, earning enough capital to adequately reinvest into infrastructure. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 ushered in this all-too-rare regulatory success story, and its implementation helped make U.S. freight railroads the safest, most efficient and productive in the world after many had fallen into disrepair and bankruptcy in the 1960s and '70s.

Today, however, new regulations proposed by a little-known federal agency called the Surface Transportation Board (STB) threaten to undermine this system and undercut the economic benefits announced recently in Willimantic. One such proposal, “forced access,” would require railroads to open their privately maintained lines to competitors at potentially below-market prices determined by the government. Instead of private businesses making decisions based on the long-term stability and productivity of the railroad, STB would place those decisions in the hands of federal regulators.

Rail carriers, labor groups, and rail customers like UPS are united in opposing these new regulations because they would mark a return to a failed system that undercuts railroads’ ability to invest, diminishes efficiency across the network, slows service to all shippers, and leads inevitably to the diversion of freight from rail to truck.

Freight railroads in Connecticut and across the country are investing in the future of the American economy by spending private dollars to enhance service, safety and capacity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent compared to trucking.

To sustain and reinforce ongoing progress toward enhancing our local freight rail options, our federal leaders need to support a healthy national freight rail network. That means partnering with business and labor to reject STB proposals re-regulating railroads.

Michael Passero is the mayor of New London.

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