What do the Northern Nevada Development Authority, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Minnesota Counties have in common? Support for foundational American industries that facilitate economic recovery and the belief that bipartisan cooperation in support of common-sense reforms can still bring change for the better.
Allow us to explain.
October 14, 2020, marked the 40th anniversary of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 — a seminal, if oft-overlooked, piece of legislation that still works today. We joined over 1,000 community, business and elected leaders from across the country in signing a letter to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the economic regulator of freight railroads, and congressional leadership commemorating the anniversary of this legislation and calling on them to preserve its balanced approach into the future.
In signing the letter, we were joined by a bipartisan group including more than 320 mayors, commissioners, and local government representatives; over 230 state legislators; more than 200 business leaders, ports and economic development organizations; nearly 90 think tanks and policy groups, think tanks and associations; nearly 150 rail supply companies and associations; and 25 former administration officials and congressional leaders, including seven former U.S. secretaries of Transportation.
In many ways, the breadth of this support is the point. The Staggers coalition today is as broad as was the overwhelming bipartisan support the bill received when it passed Congress and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter four decades ago.
Prior to 1980, freight railroads were being crushed by government overregulation to the point that they were going bankrupt and a cycle of disinvestment had left infrastructure in such disrepair that rail cars would derail while standing still. Congress recognized that they had a choice between nationalizing the railroads or deregulating them. They chose the latter.
The Staggers Rail Act partially deregulated economic aspects of freight railroading and put in place a balanced system that protected shippers while allowing rail carriers to operate like other businesses. This allowed them to increase their productivity and generate enough revenue to be successful companies.
Of course, we do not just support a 40-year-old law because it was bipartisan, we support it because it is still working and is critical to the future of freight rail. Since 1980, privately owned U.S. freight railroads have invested over $710 billion of their own capital into the equipment, technology and infrastructure necessary to completely transform railroading.
Even without the billions of dollars in taxpayer support other modes receive, freight railroads have doubled their traffic and fuel efficiency since 1980, while rail rates are down more than 40 percent adjusted for inflation. Recent years have also been among the safest on record.
Those privately funded successes have real implications for Americans. At a time when a devastating pandemic has overwhelmed our economy and accelerated changes in retail markets, freight railroads have adjusted to help keep store shelves stocked and facilitate e-commerce without government assistance. With Congress unable to agree how to properly fund infrastructure, every ton of freight moving by rail lessens the burden on taxpayer-funded highways, mitigating congestion and pollution at the same time.
Celebrating and promoting balanced, bipartisan reforms in freight transportation may not be top-of-mind for many right now. However, the lessons of Staggers loom large today: focusing on the fundamentals and working together for common-sense reforms can have long-lasting, dramatic impacts.
We hope that regulators and legislators in Washington, D.C., preserve the core tenets of the Staggers Act into the future. Applying the wisdom and approach of this forwarding thinking legislation to the many issues in need of action now can serve as the model for spurring our nation’s economic recovery.