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Rockefeller Pushes STB Oversight
Thursday, 30 July 2009 00:00

Key senator tells nominee captive shippers treated unfairly

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told the nominee to head the Surface Transportation Board that captive shippers have suffered unfairly as federal regulators weighed in on the side of railroads in the deregulation era.

Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that oversees the STB, and is drafting legislation to alter rail regulation, made the remarks after Daniel R. Elliott III said as STB chairman he would be neutral in issues coming before the agency and would favor neither railroads nor shippers.

Rockefeller would have none of that, telling Elliott that usually on issues of law “there is a feeling of who’s right and who’s wrong, and I think what you’re trying to do is bypass” giving his views by pledging neutrality. “When you get to the problem of captive shippers, nothing is neutral,” the senator said.

Elliott is an attorney for the rail conductors’ group, the United Transportation Union. Unions have often sided with shippers in the past to resist railroad positions in regulatory proceedings. The nominee repeatedly assured senators that he would be neutral.

Nominees for various government jobs, from the Supreme Court to regulatory agencies, often try to avoid being pinned down about their views on issues they will soon have to tackle. But in the Commerce Committee’s July 28 hearing on the nominations of Elliott and several others picked for jobs in the Obama administration, Rockefeller made clear he wants rail regulators to change some things.

And Rockefeller made clear his own views on the conflict between shippers whose cargoes may be captive to a single railroad, and the railroads they use. When Elliott said that “obviously as a decision maker at the board I have to be neutral and apply the law as it is,” the chairman interrupted to challenge how regulators have performed.

“If there’s anything that stands out in the history of captive shippers, that’s why it’s been an issue for so long,” Rockefeller said. “The (1980) Staggers Act has not been applied fairly. It’s been applied to the advantage of the railroads, to the disadvantage of the shippers who often can’t bring suit because it will cost them too much money or it will take them too much time and they’ll get worn down by the bigger railroads.”

Journal of Commerce, 7/30/2009