Congressional politics threaten PTC extension bill

Just when American railroads were perhaps starting to breathe a bit easier about the December 31st, 2015 Positive Train Control (PTC) deadline account the seeming agreement in the House of Representatives about extending the deadline to 2018 under a pending bill HR 3651,  new political roadblocks to passage appear to be arising.  On Wednesday October 7th, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), leading Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee, stated that Senate Democrats will not go along with passage of such a bill unless the House first passes the 2015 Highway Bill.  That bill has been languishing in the House due to a variety of issues, including both partisan wrangling over its contents and the present leadership struggles among the House’s current Republican majority.  Boxer indicated that her caucus would block passage of an independent PTC extension bill.  Under Senate rules, simple majorities are unable to block filibusters, a tactic used to delay or prevent passage of a bill that a minority faction may oppose.  Such tactics make the Senate a more difficult place to pass bills than in the House, where simple majorities carry the day.

The White House believes DOT should enforce the law

Meanwhile, over at the White House on the same day, Presidential spokesperson Frank Benenati is quoted as saying, “Congress enacted this law, including the December 31, 2015, deadline, and we believe it is important that the Department of Transportation enforce the law that Congress passed.

The timing of this statement, following as it does on the heels of the same day Boxer announcement, is hardly likely to be an accident.  Instead, it seemingly signals White House support for Boxer’s stance and the sudden increased politicization of the entire issue.  In Washington politics, small but often critical matters are frequently used to apply leverage for advantage over or negotiations on larger issues.  The danger here is that partisan power struggles in Washington have become so frequent and often so bitter and divisive that there is no guarantee that despite the potential chaos that may result in the transportation industry account the deadline running out (and thereby forcing a railroad shutdown), things will be allowed to figuratively “run over a cliff” anyway.  A more likely scenario may be the passage of some sort of last minute compromise, which these days often entails a series of short term extensions to whatever the current status quo is for the given issue at hand.  That usually does not sit well with businesses, especially big, capitol intensive ones like railroads, that need stable policy in order to effectively plan outlays (which total billions for PTC) and operating practices for long-term effectiveness.

Shippers by rail should take note and continue to monitor the issue.  Continued uncertainty over what the situation may be come January 1st, 2016 now seems likely to continue for some time. The potential occurrence of “the nuclear option,” i.e. a complete shutdown of the railroad infrastructure, although still probably unlikely, now seems set to remain a concern and sadly, a growing possibility unless cooler heads in Washington soon prevail.

View our previous posts on the this topic:

PTC Alert! The Positive Train Control Deadline Creates a Potential Transportation Crisis

Congress advances bill to delay Railroad PTC Mandate

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