Senate Commerce Committee Approves Port Improvement, Rail Crew Bills, STB Nominee

August 1, 2018

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved by voice vote today several items including a bill to establish a new port improvement grant program, a bill to criminalize attacks on interstate passenger rail crews, and another nominee for a seat on the Surface Transportation Board.

Port improvements. By a voice vote, the Commerce Committee approved Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-MS) bill to establish a grant program for ports and intermodal connectors.

The Port Operations, Research, and Technology Act (S. 3273) establishes a Port and Intermodal Improvement Program, which allows the Secretary of Transportation to award competitive grant funding to projects that will improve the safety, efficiency, or reliability of the movement of goods through a port or the intermodal connection to a port. This could include, for example, marine terminal equipment, intermodal facilities, highway or rail infrastructure immediately surrounding a port, or digital infrastructure systems. It also includes dredging of vessel berthing areas or access channels not part of a federal channel.

The bill includes provisions that would ensure the wealth is spread around: no more than 25 percent of funds can be given to any one state, at least 10 percent must go to small projects, and no more than 25 percent can go toward dredging projects. No money can be given to projects within small shipyards.

The bill also gives the Secretary authority to coordinate with other agencies to expedite the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) permitting process for port projects, and to provide technical assistance to applicants.

The Wicker bill is only an authorization; it does not appropriate any new money to the program. However, it allows the Secretary to receive funding from other agencies and non-federal entities with appropriations for port and intermodal project in order to build up a pool of funds from which to make the awards.

The Port and Intermodal Improvement Program represents a second attempt to establish a pool of money to be awarded to port and related projects: it would replace the Port Infrastructure Development Program established by the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 but never fully implemented by the Maritime Administration (MARAD). That program similarly allowed MARAD to pool funds from other federal agencies and non-federal entities with money for port or intermodal projects and manage the administration of that pool. It never received its own appropriations.

Compared to the program it replaces, Sen. Wicker’s proposal is more intermodal as it allows for grants to be awarded not just to ports and intermodal facilities with a maritime component, but also to infrastructure projects surrounding the port such as highways and railways.

The bill was reported out of committee with an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to remove a provision that would have allowed the Secretary to use awarded funds to pay the subsidy and administrative costs of a project necessary to provide the applicant with federal credit assistance under the TIFIA program, if the project in question is eligible for credit assistance under that chapter.

The bill also includes a provision establishing a Coast Guard Blue Technology Center for Expertise to act as a conduit between the Coast Guard and the manufacturers of technologies used by the Coast Guard, such as for emergency response and maritime law enforcement.

After the vote, Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) thanked Sen. Wicker “for his thoughtful approach on the ports bill, and I look forward to continue working on a bipartisan basis to seek improvements that will help safeguard maritime jobs.”

Passenger rail crew safety. By a voice vote, the committee approved the Passenger Rail Crew Protection Parity Act (S.2861) to designate an attack on a train engineer, conductor, onboard personnel, or other employee responsible for travel safety as a federal offense.

Sponsoring Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced the bipartisan bill in May 2018, which one year since shooting of an Amtrak conductor at the Naperville, Illinois train station. They described the legislation with the purpose of discouraging violence and improving public safety. In a May press release, the Duckworth office referred to the Naperville attack as “one of 73 recorded assaults on Amtrak crewmembers since 2015.”

The committee did not approve the bill as originally introduced but instead approved a substitute version submitted by Sen. Duckworth that added detailed definitions, a request for a U.S. Government Accountability Office on commuter rail assaults, and a “Sense of Congress” formal opinion encouraging carrier-level assault prevention and response training. It would uniformly heighten the level of punishment of assault/intimidation of train crews to the same federal charges for an attack on aircraft crews. The resulting penalties would be either or both a fine and prison time—up to eight years or 20 years if a dangerous weapon is used. Currently, these train-specific charges are adjudicated by local laws in the place of the crime, which vary in their severity.

STB nominee. The committee also approved, by voice vote, the nomination of Martin Oberman for the fifth seat on the Surface Transportation Board (STB). His appointment (PN2265 and PN2266) would fill former vice chair Daniel Elliott III’s vacated Democratic seat through 2018 and then begin a new five-year term ending in 2023.

There are now three pending STB nominees, two Republicans (Patrick Fuchs and Michelle Schultz) approved by committee late April and now one Democrat, awaiting confirmation from the full Senate. With only two active members at the moment, the STB is holding off on major rulemakings such as that on competitive/reciprocal switching. Chairman Thune (R-SD) remarked that a swift floor vote for all three nominees would enable the STB to do its work with all with five members. This would be the first time since the addition of two more board seats in 2015 that the STB would be completely filled. (Ed. Note: The Senate adjourned on August 1 for a two-week recess without taking action on the three STB nominees, so we probably have to wait until August 15 or later for any action.)

Unnamed senators requested additional time for considering Rick Dearborn’s nomination to the Amtrak Board of Directors. His nomination was removed from the agenda earlier this week. Oberman and Dearborn were questioned about their relevant experiences and priorities if successfully appointed during a full committee hearing last week.

Video of the brief executive session can be found here.


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