Reports from Washington, D.C., indicate President Obama, a large swath of the U.S. business community and select members of Congress – including Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia – will do all they can to enact the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal into law in 2016.
“I know that the politics around trade can be very difficult, especially in an election year,” President Obama said in a recent trip to Singapore. “The answer isn’t to turn inward and embrace protectionism … We can’t just walk away from trade.”
Despite the loud rhetoric in the presidential election on trade (the majority of U.S. voters support free trade), passing the measure would benefit the American economy, including ours here in Hampton Roads. We need fair access to global markets to take advantage of our world class natural harbor. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues, passing a free trade deal is our chance to have access to “booming Asia-Pacific markets where two billion people have joined the middle class over the last two decades.”
Until we have movement on free trade policy, however, we must ensure our economy maintains and strengthens essential variables such as manufacturing, retail and transportation. In the case of the latter, particularly with the region’s deep connection to Norfolk Southern, we believe freight railroads will play a particularly important role. As such, policymakers at the local, state and federal level must do their part to ensure we maintain a healthy rail sector.
The Hampton Roads Chamber supports a balanced investment in the state’s transportation system that ensures the efficient and effective development of all modes of transportation infrastructure. This includes viable and transparent public-private partnerships, port infrastructure growth and expanded use of technology.
In many ways, our nation’s privately owned freight railroads embody many of these principles, serving as a model for how to build and maintain a sustainable transportation system that can positively affect the economy.
According to a study by Towson University, by spending some $30 billion annually in private dollars in recent years, freight railroads facilitate sizable benefits to the U.S. economy, including $33 billion in taxes generated across the country in 2014 alone.
This means the presence of railroads and the jobs they create help fill the coffers of government to fund public measures important to us in Hampton Roads like education, workforce development and veteran’s affairs.
The same report also found private capital directly correlated with 1.5 million jobs, $274 billion in economic activity and nearly $89 billion in wages nationally. This is not to mention the inherent connector role the industry plays, helping get goods to market, no matter where they may originate.
“Railroads offer quick access to far-flung corners of the country not easily or quickly accessible by other forms of transportation,” says prominent economic opinion leader John Burnett. “They also provide the best way to ship enormous numbers of goods, particularly large products, long distances. With a string of cars that sometimes reach a mile long, no other mode has the scale to move goods in bulk.”
For many of our port’s most prominent goods, such as coal, consumer products and paper, bulk movement is particularly important.
Yet ever since the federal government partially deregulated the industry in 1980, it is as though railroads live on shaky ground. Narrow business interests consistently lobby the government to impose stringent measures that would revert the industry back to one that cannot make day-to-day decisions on its own.
Just recently, the Surface Transportation Board issued a proposed rule that would require companies like CSX Transportation or Norfolk Southern to open their privately owned and maintained lines to competitors at a price dictated by the government. This would be like forcing your friend to give you log-in credentials to Netflix and you only pay a fraction of the total cost. It is misguided, just as a handful of rules from the transportation board and Federal Railroad Administration have been in recent months.
The message should be clear: railroads nearly died and only survived when federal policymakers got out of the way. As we have robust discussions regarding trade, we must ensure railroads maintain the ability to operate and facilitate trade.
As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”