When Congress took action to save the railroads and help the Port of Hueneme
By Will Berg
Forty years ago, Congress took bipartisan action to address a critical issue decisively and effectively, providing an example for today’s leaders and setting a key piece of the foundation for the ongoing success of the Port of Hueneme.
This is why I have joined with over 1,000 local, county, state and national officials and business leaders in signing a letter to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board marking the 40th anniversary of the Staggers Rail Act and urging STB to maintain the regulatory balance that has enabled railroads to thrive, invest and support our community and economy.
Before President Jimmy Carter signed the Staggers Act into law on Oct. 14, 1980, freight railroads were on the brink of failure, having been driven into the ground by overregulation that prevented them from earning enough capital to perform even basic maintenance on track, rolling stock and other equipment—let alone invest in the type of expansions and improvements that helped spur the development and success of Port Hueneme.
In 1980, Congress estimated that the rail industry’s capital shortfall would approach $20 billion by mid-decade unless it either nationalized the railroads or implemented reforms allowing them to operate in the free market like other businesses. Fortunately, Congress chose the latter path.
Today, railroads still operate under strict federal regulations, but with enough flexibility to make service and investment decisions based on sound economic and business principles. As a consequence, instead of falling into a $20 billion hole, as Congress projected 40 years ago, railroads turned a corner and began earning enough to rehabilitate the rail network, invest in new technologies and equipment and become the productive, safe and fuel-efficient system we have today.
Since Staggers, railroads have invested more than $710 billion of their own money—not taxpayer dollars—back into the nationwide rail network.
The Port of Hueneme owes its game-changing rail service, which has been key to its expansion capabilities and environmental initiatives, to this bipartisan action 40 years ago. The Ventura County Railroad’s connection to Union Pacific’s vast network means cargo can move in and out of the port more efficiently and with less congestion impact on our roads and freeways, while also giving port customers access to markets throughout the nation.
This capability could not have developed under a regulatory system that prevented railroads from reinvesting into the rail network. With so many other pressing needs, it is impossible to imagine that sufficient tax dollars would have been devoted to maintaining freight rail service in America. Without the reforms of the Staggers Act, we simply would not have the world-class freight rail system that serves as a foundation for our economy today.
We would all benefit if today’s leaders not only commit to preserving the integrity of the Staggers Act into the future, but also follow the example of its authors and put partisanship aside to address the many difficult challenges we currently face.
• Will Berg is a member of the Port Hueneme City Council.