By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The head of an alliance lobbying to increase regulation of major railroads in areas with little or no competition said the effort is gaining strength, and might be able to persuade Congress to take action in the next year or two.
"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Terry Whiteside said Tuesday at the fourth annual Women Stepping Forward for Agriculture symposium in Havre.
Whiteside, a Bozeman consultant who works with ag groups in states including Montana, Idaho, Washington, Colorado and Texas, said he joined the Alliance for Rail Competition six years ago.
Whiteside said a coalition lobbying Congress, including the Alliance for Rail Competition, now includes 55 percent of the country's railroad freight customers. He said he thinks 80 percent to 90 percent of the customers will need to be part of the coalition before Congress will take action. That level of support could be reached in the next few years, he said.
Whiteside, who chairs the alliance, told the audience that rail transportation in Montana can cost businesses up to twice as much as it costs businesses in states with rail competition.
Montana has only two major railroads, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. and the Union Pacific Railroad. BNSF hauls 90 percent of the wheat transported out of the state by rail, he said.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the railroad uses market analysis to set its rates.
"We believe the rates reflect our market," he said.
Melonas declined to comment further on the rates.
Montana's congressional delegation sponsored or co-sponsored bills in the House and Senate last year to promote rail competition and ensure reasonable rates and make sure railroad cars are available in areas without rail competition.
Brad Keena, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said today the bills have not moved out of committee and will probably have to be reintroduced next session.
Keena said Rehberg, a co-sponsor of the House bill, will again support the bill.
"Sometimes bills like these need to see a growth in support before they catch on and have the ability to move out of committee," Keena said.
U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., sponsored the bill in the Senate. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., was a co-sponsor.
Burns spokesman J.P. Donovan said today the senator will continue to try to get the legislation passed.
"We're in this fight for the long haul. We've got to get some kind of level playing field for our ag producers when it comes to transportation," he said.
Whiteside said at the symposium that support for the legislation is growing because more industries across the nation are being affected by high rates in areas with low rail competition.
The country had 40 Class 1 railroads in operation 20 years ago, compared with four in operation today, he said. Two major railroads operate in the East and two operate in the West, he said.
That allows the railroads to set rates without any competition, Whiteside said. The railroads justify their prices by saying they have to compensate for areas where they have to compete by raising rates in areas where they don't, he said.
"The railroads are doing exactly what they are allowed to do," he said. "We have to change what they are allowed to do."