The INVEST in America Act reeks. The rail policy portion smells the worst

Congressional Republicans continue to push for compromise on matters of infrastructure and transportation, ranging from President Biden’s public works plan to the more narrowly tailored surface transportation reauthorization bills in both the U.S. House and Senate. With very few exceptions, congressional Democrats continue to pursue a deeply partisan approach riddled with narrow pet priorities. 

This is especially true when it comes to the $547 billion legislation due for a vote in the House next week known as the INVEST Act, which garnered just two Republican votes when it cleared the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee I sit on. “The Majority’s new ‘My Way or the Highway Bill 2.0’ doubles down on the same mandates, restrictive policies, and costly diversions of infrastructure resources that led to last year’s failure to provide long-term investments in America’s roads and bridges,” committee leaders Sam Graves, Missouri Republican; Rodney Davis, Illinois Republican; Rick Crawford, Arkansas Republican; and Garret Graves, Louisiana Republican, recently noted.

Perhaps nowhere is this truer than when it comes to dealing with a quiet yet important part of the U.S. economy — the rail system. 

While President Biden and Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, regularly profess their love for trains, the truth is that only extends to the highly subsidized passenger version. For the companies like BNSF or Union Pacific in my state of Texas that move goods on privately funded infrastructure, transportation legislation is merely a venue to curry favor with powerful labor unions. 

They apparently fail to see that the legislation they are advancing would undercut one of the few sectors asking for nearly nothing from this mammoth bill, or that it undermines their own stated goals. These include a need to create and sustain good paying jobs; restore global competitiveness; tackle climate change; modernize infrastructure; and spur long-term economic growth.

On competitiveness, the freight rail industry met the demands of our nation during the pandemic by never closing and continually moving the goods we needed to preserve public health and sustain our families all while safeguarding the health and safety of the rail workforce. They did all of this I might add without asking for any bailout money — a novel concept for many that will benefit from this bill.

On the environment, freight railroads are also the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land. On average, railroads move one ton of freight more than 480 miles on one gallon of fuel.  

And on modern infrastructure, unlike the rest of our nation’s transportation system our freight rail system receives the highest grade from the Civil Engineers for their infrastructure — a B.  

Yet still, the INVEST Act includes an endless list of regulatory provisions that set our railroads back at least a decade. “For instance, the legislation attempts to usurp ongoing collective bargaining negotiations by mandating most freight trains operate with two people in the cab of a locomotive in perpetuity,” writes Association of American Railroads president and CEO Ian Jefferies. It seeks to ban the movement of clean LNG via railroads, increase the ability for money-losing Amtrak to sue freight railroads, dictate how operations should be handled at congested U.S. borders and create redundant standards for the hours workers can serve in a rail yard. 

All told, the bill would stifle innovation, hurt jobs, negatively impact rail fluidity and service, lead to modal shift away from the rails and instead to a less environmentally friendly mode of transportation and to our already congested highways. No rational person can argue this is in the interest of the American people or the economy.

Should both chambers of Congress pass bills in full, we should hope for a better path. Transportation legislation can and should be bipartisan. A starting point would be going on a different track for rail policy.

• Troy Nehls is a Republican U.S. representative for the 22nd Congressional District of Texas.

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