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COMMENTARY ARCHVES
   

DECEMBER COMMENTARY
by Stephen Freese


On Track: Develop Relationships
with Those in D.C.

This month I’m thinking about the importance of electric co-op members making personal contact with legislators and policymakers about issues affecting their cooperatives. Our members purchase electricity for their homes, farms, and businesses, and trust their co-ops to deliver it safely, effectively, and affordably. Often, they’ve come to rely on their co-ops for help when issues arise beyond their purchase of electricity.

An issue we’ve been working on for some time relates to railroads. The severe winter of 2014 created major issues with grain car backlogs, storage constraints, and rail car premiums, adding up to higher transportation and commodity costs. There were weeks when we weren’t sure if coal would be delivered in time to generate electricity. While coal deliveries directly affect each of our electric cooperatives, the ability to transport products made in Wisconsin affects businesses and industries served by co-ops in very significant ways.

Last summer Barron Electric Cooperative hosted Congressman Sean Duffy to meet with employees and co-op members, and he learned firsthand about the rail service challenges affecting industry in the northern counties that make up his congressional district. Congressman Duffy heard from Barron Electric members who produce agricultural and timber products, frac sand, and manufactured products. He heard about significant problems they were having with rail service. Clearly understanding the impact on Wisconsin’s economy, he put together a meeting with the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster. 

It was my privilege to join Barron Electric members telling the two congressmen what was happening in Wisconsin. The relationship Barron Electric members had developed with Congressman Duffy helped us make the case before the chairman of a major committee about needed rail reforms. We connected what’s happening in Wisconsin with his Pennsylvania district and the national economy. 

Almost 33 percent of all freight in Wisconsin moves by rail. That includes cheese and wood products headed for the west coast and markets in Asia. Canned sweet corn, peas, green beans, and potatoes move by rail, as does the steel for the cans those vegetables ship in. Farmers were completing the field-corn and soybean harvest, and we connected their challenges shipping those products by rail with the equal challenge next spring obtaining bulk fertilizer by rail. These farmers are our members. They grow the crops and buy the electricity from us to operate their irrigation pivots and dry their grains. We had the ability—and the duty—to speak on their behalf.

In the meeting with Duffy and Shuster, we supported reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Board (STB). This federal agency is charged with economic oversight of the nation’s freight rail system. Its previous authorization expired in 1998, and we shared with the congressmen the importance of a reauthorization spelling out pro-consumer reforms of its procedures. We made the case why the STB needs authority to initiate investigations of matters other than routine rate-setting, establish timelines for review of complaints, and create a complaint database updated quarterly.

We also talked about a deadline extension for Positive Train Control (PTC) technologies designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents occur. Congress passed this as an unfunded mandate requiring America’s privately owned railroads to finance, develop, install, and test the unproven and now somewhat outdated technology across 60,000 miles of the rail network by the end of this year. It couldn’t be achieved by the deadline, and we appreciated the congressmen supporting a three-year extension to avoid rail-service disruption. Congress did approve our recommendation, and the President signed it into law. 

Our progress on these issues shows the importance of developing relationships with elected leaders and policymakers. Without it, a productive meeting like this one might not have occurred.

 

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