Keep rail resurgence going strong

  • Peter Silvestri

    Peter Silvestri

 
By Peter N. Silvestri
Guest columnist
Posted2/11/2021 1:00 AM

Lost last fall amid the run-up to the election was the 40th anniversary of the Staggers Act, a landmark federal law with an especially strong connection to Chicago, the nation's preeminent rail hub. Freight rail is center stage in a network that has functioned tirelessly to move essential goods during the pandemic.

As Chicagoland has experienced COVID-19 waves, store shelves have also experienced waves of demand and supply chains have had to adjust. Each year, an integrated network of planes, trucks, ships and trains moves 57 tons of goods (on average) for each person. When our buying patterns change, that network has to respond. And without each part of that network pulling its weight, the whole system breaks down.

 

The key to freight rail's resilience today is a little-known 40-year-old piece of legislation.

Forty years ago, freight railroads were on life support. Then, as now, freight railroads were self-funding -- using their own money rather than taxpayer dollars to maintain rail infrastructure. The problem was that although they were responsible for all the tracks, rail cars and locomotives, they were not free to make their own decisions about how to use their assets and run their railroads. Routes, service and prices were all dictated by the federal government. The system did not work. Freight railroads were incapable of earning enough revenue for even basic maintenance, let alone improvements, and the entire rail system fell into disrepair.

Fortunately, at a key point in time, a bipartisan group in Congress pushed forward a solution to the problem. In passing the Staggers Act of 1980, Republicans and Democrats united behind a proposal to allow freight railroads to operate like other businesses in a free market -- to maximize their efficiencies, highlight their strengths and negotiate with customers to set rates for their service.

Although still highly regulated, freight railroads once facing bankruptcy became thriving operations. Over time, they regenerated their revenues, which allowed them to reinvest back into a rail system that had been starved of capital, slowly but surely rebuilding the best-in-the-world freight rail network we have today.

Since 1980, these railroads have churned more than $710 billion of their own money back into the rail network. For Chicago, this means our status as the nexus of the national rail network is secure. And across Illinois, our 52 freight railroads operating nearly 7,000 miles of track continue to serve as a foundation for our state's manufacturers, farms and other businesses.

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That's why I joined hundreds of other local leaders across the country last fall in sending a letter to Congress to commemorate the 40th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter signing the Staggers Act into law on Oct. 14, 1980, and I urge our policymakers to preserve its tenets into the future.

During the pandemic, trains have also kept grocery stores filled with food, moved the chemicals required for medicines and the safety of our water supply, hauled energy products to support electricity demand and so much more. They've done this important work without seeking government assistance like many other transportation modes -- a testament to how the Staggers Act reforms bred the self-reliance we see in freight rail today.

The four decades of progress brought by the Staggers Act were possible because leaders of both parties in Washington put their differences aside and came together in the national interest, a good example for what's needed to confront today's challenges in both Illinois and across the nation.

• Peter N. Silvestri is a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners representing the 9th district and serves on the Transportation Committee.

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