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OPED: A solution for upgrading infrastructure

Chris Reilly
York County Commssioner

Infrastructure has been front and center in the public eye lately as hurricanes in Florida and Texas test it, and policymakers, including the Trump administration, develop plans to fix it. Lawmakers here in Pennsylvania are also looking for ways to improve our state’s deteriorating roads, bridges and waterways.

To address this increasingly urgent problem, policymakers should look to the freight rail network — a success story in Pennsylvania and across the country — as an example of how robust investment and smart regulation can lead to sustained infrastructure improvements.

A 2014 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded 16 categories of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure and 11 received grades of C or lower. Rail was the only category to receive a B.

Pennsylvania’s 65 operating freight railroads are the most of any state in the country and play a major role in moving cargo to and from the busy ports in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie. The state ranks ninth in the country in goods moved through ports, with more than 100 million tons moved each year.

The freight rail industry is also engaging in innovative public-private infrastructure projects that will further increase the efficiency in which goods can be moved throughout the state and across the nation. For example, the Crescent Corridor, a freight rail improvement project covering 13 states that will connect rail lines with inter-modal shipping facilities, has been powered by $264 million from Norfolk Southern.

When it is completed in 2020, shipping goods in Pennsylvania will be cheaper and more efficient and the state will save 9.9 million gallons of fuel and $44.1 million worth of congestion costs each year. On top of that, it will have created more than 25,000 jobs.

These successes are possible because of economic policies that create incentives for freight railroads to invest in the preservation and upgrade of their tracks and equipment. Before these policies were enacted in 1980, railroads were losing money and operating on an inefficient network. Since then, they have invested more than $635 billion toward improving rail infrastructure nationwide, including many projects like the Crescent Corridor.

Freight rail exemplifies the resurgence that can occur when struggling infrastructure is met with sustained investment and reasonable regulations. One way to reasonably regulate is to prioritize outcome-based standards over more prescriptive controls. Another is to reject current calls at the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to add several new rail regulations, including “forced access,” which would compel railroads to open their lines to competitors at rates and schedules determined by the government.

As our leaders continue to look for ways to modernize Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, they should consider implementing policies that allow for more widespread private investment in our roads, bridges, water systems and other sectors. Doing so allowed freight rail to thrive, and could ensure Pennsylvania’s economic health for years to come.

— Chris Reilly is a member of the York County Board of Commissioners. He was elected to a fifth four-year term as county commissioner in November 2015. He is the longest-serving commissioner in York County history.