As federal policymakers advance another round of needed COVID-19 relief, news reports indicate that President Joe Biden and Congress will turn next to revitalizing U.S. infrastructure systems. Bold action will not only aid struggling highways, water and transit systems, but has the potential to stimulate the economy, create jobs, develop industries and help address climate change.
Addressing the decades-long needs of the nation’s passenger and freight rail systems will be an especially important piece of this strategy. Moving people or goods by rail means less road congestion, less wear and tear on our highways, and less time lost to commuter traffic. It also means lessening the burden on lawmakers in Trenton and beyond to direct precious dollars.
New Jersey residents should be grateful to know that Congressman Donald Payne of Newark will direct rail related policy in the U.S. House of Representatives as the new Chairman of the relevant subcommittee. Congressman Payne has a history of advocacy on transportation issues and has been a leading voice in the need to improve the nation’s railroads.
First, for passenger rail, this immediately means safeguarding those individuals on Amtrak and NJ Transit trains traversing the state. “I want to make sure our nation’s rail system has the resources necessary to protect commuters and staff as well as maintain facilities during and after this public health crisis,” the Congressman recently said. Indeed, by quickly passing the relief bill, lawmakers will provide $30 billion for transit systems and $1.5 billion for Amtrak – more than half of which will go to our vital “Northeast Corridor.”
But it also means thinking long term – we cannot afford to just address the problems of yesterday, we need to face the challenges of tomorrow. Obviously, finally funding and developing the new tunnel between New Jersey and New York via the Gateway Program is indeed “the most urgent infrastructure program in America.” Residents deserve a safe and secure way to move within our region and we need to improve fluid movement and support the significant economic impact of this region on the country.
As Congressman Payne and his New Jersey colleagues know, passenger rail, in particular NJ Transit and other intercity operations across the country need to improve and grow. Rail transit programs have been underfunded at the federal level for far too long. Lawmakers should instill a sustainable funding source for rail transit, providing resources to supplement ticket sales.
But our rail policy should also address a silent yet important component of our infrastructure – freight railroads like CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern in New Jersey. Many readers would be surprised to know that these companies fund their network of tracks and equipment. At the same time, freight rail operations provide good paying jobs, reduced carbon emissions and reliable service for customers – many of which are directly linked to the consumer economy – consider our ports and airports. The freight railroads also provide the majority of track used for passenger rail.
With less of a need for direct funding, smart freight rail policy means furthering policies that enhance the industry’s ability to compete in the future. It should also involve growing public-private partnerships where possible.
In an effort for greater pedestrian safety, Congress should increase the public money available to close or separate grade crossings – those areas where motorists and pedestrians encounter trains. This is an idea embraced by the National Association of Counties. Quite simply, it makes life safer and improves mobility.
Finally, federal and state policymakers should welcome advancements in freight rail technology. Experts believe technology – like vehicles that inspect track or a brake system that can automatically slow or stop a train – can move us towards an accident-free future.
New Jersey is fortunate to have Congressman Payne in a position of leadership on these important issues. Hopefully, Congress will stray away from some of the measures included in last year’s infrastructure bill that impose rigid operating restrictions on freight railroads. While oversight is appropriate, dictating specific practices across any number of rail operations could undermine the benefits rail provides. The rule here is simple: avoid policies that make railroads less competitive and thus less likely to take more goods off the roads.
Rail has a real opportunity. Rep. Payne will play a key role.
Assemblyman Chiaravalloti represents the 31st Legislative District.