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Published December 17, 2009, 07:51 AM

Bill may aid S.D. railroad patrons

Hoping to give South Dakota farmers “a fair shake” from rail carriers, John Thune has thrown his support behind legislation designed to assist small shippers who do not have the expertise to make challenges or complaints about their rail service.

By: Korrie Wenzel, The Daily Republic

Hoping to give South Dakota farmers “a fair shake” from rail carriers, John Thune has thrown his support behind legislation designed to assist small shippers who do not have the expertise to make challenges or complaints about their rail service.

Thune is the ranking member of the Surface Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and discussed the legislation during a Wednesday conference call with reporters. Specifically, he is supporting the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2009, which is scheduled to be discussed in committee today.

“Clearly, coming up with a quicker, more expeditious and less costly way for shippers to air their complaints and grievances is critical because right now it costs them years and millions of dollars in legal fees to take a case before the Surface Transportation Board,” Thune said. “This is designed to correct that.”

If passed, Thune says the legislation will:

• Create a new customer advocate at the Surface Transportation Board who would work with shippers who have questions or complaints and help them get their concerns answered.

• Streamline the rate complaint process and lower the fee for filing a complaint to $350.

• Create a new arbitration process for small rate complaints.

The latter is “even more important for South Dakota,” Thune said, who supposes it will “be of great assistance to grain elevators and farmer-owned ethanol plants in South Dakota who today do not have the time or expertise to challenge a railroad rate under the existing rate case procedures.”

During his conference call Wednesday, Thune called the legislation a “bipartisan bill designed to address the needs of rail shippers while maintaining a strong national freight rail system.”

He said rail service is important to South Dakota because of its status as an agricultural state. He noted that last year, South Dakota produced 172 million bushels of wheat, 585 million bushels of corn, 130 million bushels of soybeans and 1 billion gallons of ethanol.

All, Thune said, “are very heavily dependent on viable rail service.”

Thune held a hearing in August in Sioux Falls about the transportation needs of rural America. He recalls that during the meeting, he heard from a number of shippers and people impacted by rail transportation.

Wednesday afternoon, executives from numerous ag-related organizations sent a letter to Thune and others in Congress supporting the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2009, commending those who back the bill for “solving real-world rail challenges.”

“Specifically, we believe the bill will better balance shipper needs for reasonable rates and service with railroad needs for adequate revenues and provide a fair, expeditious, accessible and cost-effective regulatory process,” the letter states. “The railroads need adequate revenues to reinvest in capacity, but there is also a need to facilitate a more normal business-to-business relationship between shippers and carriers. This bill will assist in reaching that goal.”

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