UNITED STATES SENATE
COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
ISTEA REAUTHORIZATION
Testimony of Karen Borlaug Phillips
Senior Vice President Association of American Railroads
March 13, 1997

INTRODUCTION

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, my name is Karen Phillips. I am Senior Vice President of the Association of American Railroads (AAR). I appreciate your invitation to appear before this Subcommittee and present AAR's views on the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Assistance Act (ISTEA).

As you begin your work on ISTEA reauthorization with these hearings, I would like to discuss four particular issues of significant concern to the railroad industry. The first of these issues is one of overriding interest to all of us - transportation safety, and in this instance safety at highway-rail grade crossings. The second issue involves an essential element in any serious effort to continue to improve the movement of freight in this country and in the global marketplace - intermodalism, and specifically the important connections between different transportation modes. Third, I would like to address the roles of States and MPOs in effective transportation planning, and, finally, I will briefly discuss the important issue of federal truck size and weight standards.

HIGHWAY-RAIL GRADE CROSSINGS

There has been an extremely successful partnership among federal and state governments, the railroad industry, and other transportation safety interests for many years. This partnership has resulted in a reduction in annual public grade crossing accidents of over 65 percent since the early 1970's. This success has been accomplished primarily as a result of engineering improvements carried out under the federal Section 130 Program, and the driver education/public information and traffic law enforcement efforts of the Operation Lifesaver Program. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that the Section 130 Program and Operation Lifesaver efforts have prevented over 8,500 fatalities and 38,900 serious injuries since 1974.

Despite the impressive safety improvement, the record of 3,697 accidents and 432 fatalities at public grade crossings in 1996 is unacceptable. More must be done to eliminate these tragic accidents, and the partnership among the involved interests must be strengthened. AAR is proposing four initiatives which it believes will result in a significant improvement in highway-rail grade crossing safety:

1. The federal government should continue and increase funding for the Section 130 Grade Crossing Improvement Program. The historic Highway Safety Act of 1973 created and funded a national highway safety program specifically dedicated to enhanced safety at highway-rail crossings by providing for needed engineering and warning device improvements (Section 130 Program). In fiscal year 1997, approximately $150 million in highway user revenues was apportioned to the states to carry out this important program. As mentioned earlier, as a direct result of the earmarked federal funding for highway-rail crossing improvements, the annual crossing accident rate has been reduced by over 65 percent. This substantial reduction in accidents has occurred despite significant increases in both highway and rail traffic.

Without funding dedicated or earmarked for the Section 130 Program, crossing projects rarely compete successfully with more traditional highway needs, such as highway capacity improvements and highway maintenance. In fact, this problem was the primary reason a separate crossing improvement program was established in 1973. Despite the proven success of the Section 130 Program, however, many states continue to assign an extremely low priority to crossing improvement projects. Through the end of 1996, over $227 million of Section 130 Program funds remained unspent by the states, and approximately $230 million had been transferred to other federal-aid highway program categories.

Earmarked funding for the Section 130 Program should be continued, and the annual funding level should be increased to at least $185 million. The "Rail-Highway Crossing Study" completed by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 1989 found that:

"For warning systems, an estimated annual investment of $185 million in improvements is necessary to maintain current overall safety performance . . . . An initiative to cost effectively reduce current accident levels would require another $30 million annually."

Additionally, in order to increase state priority for Section 130 Program projects and assure crossing improvement spending, the authority to transfer Section 130 Program funds to other federal-aid highway program categories should be restricted and obligation authority should be specifically reserved for the Section 130 Program.

2. The federal government should establish a national mandate and a uniform process for closing unnecessary public grade crossings. Highway and rail safety officials have long advocated the closure of a large proportion of the public highway-rail grade crossings in the United States. Many grade crossings are redundant, serve no significant transportation mobility or access purpose, and continue to constitute a rail and highway safety hazard.

However, closing grade crossings is often not an objective transportation safety decision because the issue causes local emotional/political confrontations. The railroads support the establishment by Congress of a federal crossing closing program implemented through a uniform nationwide process. Such a process should require state transportation agencies to identify and evaluate candidate crossings for closure, utilizing uniform criteria established by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and to develop and implement a statewide crossing closing plan. Active participation in this National Grade Crossing Closure Program should be required of all states. DOT should also develop guidelines which states would be required to follow in deciding whether to permit the opening or creation of any new grade crossings.

3. The federal government should finance a multi-year national grade crossing safety education and public awareness campaign to be conducted by Operation Lifesaver, Inc. Since motorists frequently are unaware of the grave dangers of their behavior, government should take responsibility for a major, multi-year public awareness campaign designed to illustrate the life-or-death consequences of motorists' behavior at grade crossings. ISTEA authorized $300,000 annually for the National Operation Lifesaver Program to increase public awareness of the grade crossing safety problem. Additional funds to support Operation Lifesaver are generally included in annual Federal Railroad Administration appropriations. However, a substantially increased commitment of resources is required to ensure the broadest understanding of the inherent danger of highway-rail grade crossings and the critical responsibility of motorists and the public to exercise appropriate care.

This expanded national Operation Lifesaver campaign must garner the same universal recognition and acceptance that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), for example, enjoys for its attack on drunk driving. The need to "Look, Listen ... and Live" at grade crossings must be as familiar to the general public as "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk".

As an example of a possible component of such a national campaign, Operation Lifesaver -- joined by FRA and various state agencies -- is sponsoring a national campaign called "Highway or Dieways." AAR is giving significant support to this campaign. This is a very graphic and hard-hitting public service advertising campaign promoting highway-rail grade crossing safety. The campaign consists of television and radio spots, print advertising, and billboards. The strategy is to introduce the campaign in every state through Operation Lifesaver state coordinators. Begun in 1996, it has been introduced in five states, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Missouri, and has received significant media interest. The campaign will also begin next month in Ohio and California.

4. The federal government should create a national grade crossing warning device problem alert system. Despite regular and thorough grade crossing warning device testing, inspection, and maintenance conducted by railroad personnel, the industry has occasionally experienced problems in receiving timely and accurate notification when warning device problems occur. To address this problem, in 1982, the Texas legislature created the Texas 1-800 Number Rail-Highway Crossing Notification Program. Texas has installed signs at public crossings encouraging the public to call the 1-800 telephone number in the event of a crossing warning device problem. The calls are received by the Texas State Police, which in turn alert the appropriate railroad personnel.

The railroad experience with the Texas 1-800 System has been generally positive. Although occasional "crank" calls are received and the public's perception of a warning device problem may be inaccurate, the system continues to provide valuable and timely information concerning warning device problems to appropriate railroad maintenance personnel.

The railroad industry supports the creation of a publicly funded, nationwide grade crossing warning device problem alert system operated by appropriate state agencies. The federal government should evaluate the feasibility of a variety of possible nationwide alert systems, and adopt and implement an effective system.

These four grade crossing safety initiatives will significantly enhance safety at highway-rail grade crossings and strengthen the essential partnership between the railroad industry and government. I urge this Committee to include these recommendations in ISTEA reauthorization legislation.

INTERMODAL CONNECTORS

I would now like to discuss briefly the second issue of concern to the railroad industry - intermodalism and intermodal connector highways.

In ISTEA, Congress declared that:

It is the policy of the United States to develop a National Intermodal Transportation System . . . The National Intermodal Transportation System shall consist of all forms of transportation in a unified, interconnected manner . . .

In an effort to achieve that important objective, the Congress established the National Highway System, and determined that:

The purpose of the National Highway System is to provide an interconnected system of principal arterial routes which will serve major population centers, international border crossings, ports, airports, public transportation facilities, and other intermodal transportation facilities . . .

The importance of the interconnectivity of our transportation modes and systems was subsequently underscored by the National Commission on Intermodal Transportation when it found that:

Barriers to safe and efficient movement of freight occur at connections between modes . . . For example, inadequate roadway access to freight terminals is a barrier to the intermodal freight system and a major contributor to urban congestion. The lack of adequate connectors between the interstate highway system and the Nation's port, rail, airport, and truck terminals results in urban congestion, air pollution, negative impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, and delivery delays for shippers.

On May 24, 1996, then-Transportation Secretary Pea sent to the Congress a recommended list of highway connectors to major intermodal freight and passenger terminals. In his letter of transmittal, Secretary Pea observed:

The Congress, in creating the NHS, recognized that the Nation's transportation infrastructure must be viewed as a single system with each mode complementing the others. With the NHS and its connections to major intermodal terminals as the united force, our national transportation network will sustain economic growth, increase our competitiveness in the international marketplace of the 21st century, and enhance the personal mobility of every American.

Representing our major freight railroads, I can assure you that these observations and findings concerning intermodal highway connectors are absolutely correct. These essential highways are the glue that holds much of this country's intermodal transportation system together. Without first rate connections, trains, trucks, barges, and planes are condemned to operate separately and inefficiently. Government and America's private transportation companies can provide the finest transportation systems and services in the world - and that is occurring - but a completely efficient intermodal transportation system can never be realized without quality connections.

During ISTEA reauthorization these important intermodal connectors are to be considered for inclusion on the National Highway System (NHS). AAR enthusiastically supports improvement of intermodal connectors and urges their addition to the NHS.

TRANSPORTATION PLANNING

ISTEA attempted to establish a new approach to transportation throughout the country, by striving to break out of traditional, but limiting, perspectives. Transportation after ISTEA would no longer suffer from historic compartmentalization. The interests and concerns of both public and private providers of transportation facilities and services would be considered jointly and cooperatively. Passenger and freight transportation needs would both receive adequate attention and an appropriate allocation of resources. State, local, and metropolitan transportation interests would each have an appropriate and important role in planning and resource allocation. These goals of ISTEA have not yet been achieved, but that should in no way tarnish the vision or diminish our efforts.

Private railroads are working closer than ever, and more successfully, with states and MPOs to develop effective transportation plans and programs. It has been an evolutionary process, primarily because all participants have had a great deal to learn about each other and about just how to integrate our respective interests and needs into a truly comprehensive transportation planning process. But the learning and improving is happening, and transportation in this country is winning as a result.

TRUCK SIZE AND WEIGHT

AAR supports the status quo on truck size and weight limits. Of particular concern are any efforts which may be made to thaw or otherwise modify the freeze on the expanded use of longer combination vehicles (LCVs) that was included in ISTEA which are outside the scope of any legislative truck size and weight agreement that may be reached between the railroad and trucking industries.

The railroad industry has, of course, a vital stake in truck size and weight policy. Larger, heavier trucks--especially LCVs--would cause serious traffic and revenue losses to the U.S. railroad industry. This is obviously a grave concern for the railroad industry. This vital interest extends not just to the rail companies themselves, but also to the 213,000 rail employees, rail shippers, and the railroad supply industry. Additionally, there is strong evidence that heavy trucks pay user charges far less than the costs they impose on our highways and our society. This underpayment enables them to reduce rates and divert traffic from railroads. In the absence of full cost recovery, the further diversion from rail that will result from expanded use of LCVs is likely to mean a significant net economic loss not only to railroads, but also to society.

The public strongly supports federal truck weight standards. Sixty-eight percent of Americans endorse a federal weight freeze on trucks, according to a April, 1995, nationwide poll conducted by The Tarrance Group. Further, by exercising control over the nation's infrastructure through continuation of current truck size and weight standards and the LCV freeze, Congress can prevent highway infrastructure damage and congestion, increased highway safety problems, and exacerbated harm to the environment.

Advocates of increased LCV use are now proposing a "State Option" regime in place of the current federal LCV freeze. Under "State Option", States without LCVs would come under intense pressure to allow bigger trucks as they spread to neighboring jurisdictions. Stopping this "upward ratchetting" of truck size and weight limits was the reason for the 1991 LCV freeze. Ending the current freeze through such a "State Option" approach would mean a rapid spread of LCVs throughout the United States.

The truck size and weight status quo--including the LCV freeze--is also threatened by the negotiations on standardizing truck size and weight limits which are being held with our NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Last summer, 57 members of the Senate and 232 House members signed a letter to then-DOT Secretary Pea, urging him not to allow the NAFTA negotiations to be a vehicle for truck size and weight increases in the United States. AAR commends those members who signed the letter to the Secretary and the railroad industry hopes that Congress will continue to oppose larger and heavier trucks not just in NAFTA negotiations, but also in the ISTEA reauthorization.

In conclusion, ISTEA is working, because all parties are truly working together. AAR is convinced that America must continue the progressive agenda established by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act into the 21st Century.

Thank you for inviting me here today to present our views on ISTEA reauthorization. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.