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Legislative + Litigation Update, February 2024

Railtowns United’s co-Executive Director Tate Linden attended the first congressional subcommittee hearing of the year by The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure focused on the critical role of railroad grade crossings in communities, particularly highlighting the challenges and safety concerns these crossings present, especially in rural areas. It underscored the community's dependence on these crossings for connectivity and the potential implications of their removal. The hearing also explored the promising yet underutilized safety monitoring technologies that could revolutionize railroad safety, much like the capabilities of modern smartwatches.

The session addressed the difficulties in securing funding for safety improvements, (underscoring the need for organizations like Railtowns United to assist communities to navigate these challenges). The training of local first responders was highlighted as a crucial need, alongside discussions on operational frustrations, such as frequent community disruptions caused by crossings in areas like Chicagoland's Elmwood Park. Despite these challenges, the hearing reaffirmed the importance of rail transport as a comparatively clean, efficient, and safe mode of transportation, while also pointing out the gaps in data on train lengths and the necessity for new tracking initiatives. For Railtowns United and its leaders, the hearing was a call to action, underscoring the need for support, education, and collaboration to help communities connected to railroads.

What We're Watching:

Railway Safety Act: We continue to wait for something to happen on the Railway Safety Act. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised to schedule a vote on the Railway Safety Act, although it's been stalled since its committee approval in May. The legislation, which includes various safety measures in response to the East Palestine derailment, faces opposition from Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who may block or delay it. The political dynamics, especially with the upcoming elections, play a significant role in its progress. As of this writing, no date has been provided.

We're also keeping tabs on some legal battles and decisions that might not hit the railroad industry directly but could still shake things up down the line.

Here's a quick rundown:

CFPB v. Community Financial Services Association: If regulatory agencies like the CFPB face limitations on their funding and operational scope, this could lead to a decrease in oversight across various sectors, including railroads. For communities connected to the railroad industry, this might mean a mixed bag of outcomes. On one hand, reduced regulatory burdens could encourage railroad companies to expand operations or invest in new projects, potentially boosting local economies and job opportunities. On the other hand, less oversight could raise concerns about safety standards and consumer protections, potentially putting communities at risk if safety isn't prioritized.

United States v. Rahimi: The emphasis on safety and security, depending on how this case is decided, could have significant implications for railroad communities. A ruling that prioritizes public safety could lead to enhanced safety protocols and measures within the railroad industry, offering greater security for communities along rail lines. However, if the ruling leans towards protecting individual rights in a way that limits safety measures, communities might feel the impact through reduced safety protocols, potentially increasing risks associated with rail operations.

SEC v. Jarkesy: This case's focus on regulatory enforcement powers could influence the financial and operational transparency within the railroad industry. A decision that dials back on the SEC's enforcement capabilities could lessen regulatory pressures on railroads, possibly leading to a more favorable business environment and economic growth in railroad-connected communities. However, there's a flip side: reduced oversight might also decrease transparency and accountability, raising concerns among communities about the ethical practices and financial health of the railroads they rely on.

Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP: The implications of this case could extend to how political representation and policies impact railroad communities. A ruling against racial gerrymandering could lead to more equitable political representation, potentially shifting legislative priorities to favor infrastructure investments, safety regulations, and environmental protections that benefit railroad communities. This could mean more funding for local projects, improved safety measures, and enhanced environmental safeguards. Conversely, maintaining the status quo could preserve existing funding and regulatory priorities, possibly overlooking the specific needs and challenges faced by these communities.

For communities connected to the railroad industry, the outcomes of these cases could influence not just the economic and employment landscape, but also the safety, environmental, and infrastructural aspects that directly affect their well-being and quality of life. Each case, while not directly related to railroads, has the potential to indirectly shape policies and practices that impact these communities, highlighting the importance of broader legal and regulatory developments on local levels.

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