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Throughout my political service, in the Louisiana Senate and now on the state Public Service Commission, I have worked hard to remain independent of the special interests that enjoy so much influence in government. It has not been easy. Business interests hold great sway over government officials, in Baton Rouge, Washington, D.C., and in state capitols throughout America. Whether they represent oil and chemical companies, public utilities, insurance firms or other economic forces, business lobbyists have the ear of lawmakers and public officials throughout the land. Politicians at every level come into office determined to do what’s right and fulfill campaign promises. They quickly discover they have a host of new “best friends” ready to buy them dinner, treat them to shows and ballgames, pat them on the back and tell them how smart and courageous they are. The price of this “friendship” is to sponsor the best friend’s legislation, ward off pesky regulators, endorse a lucrative government contract or somehow uphold the friend’s interests in government.
In Louisiana few special interests have more political influence than the railroads. Virtual monopolies, they enjoy easy access to the Legislature, the courts and state agencies. Despite rankings that consistently show Louisiana near the top among states in the number of accidents and fatalities involving motorists and railroads, the industry has defeated nearly all reasonable measures to improve railroad safety. I served in the Louisiana Senate for 27 years. One of my most memorable experiences involved House consideration of my bill to require railroads to cut the grass at crossings to improve visibility for motorists. I passed this simple bill out of the Senate, and from there it was to be heard in the House Transportation Committee, notoriously friendly to the railroads.
Some time before the session there was a terrible accident on the Kansas City Southern crossing at Tallulah, near the Mississippi border. This is part of the KCS “Meridian Speedway” line that runs across the top of the state, from Shreveport to Tallulah. A high-school girl was killed at this crossing, which had earlier claimed her school principal and a coach. The girl’s father supported my legislation, and he arranged to attend the committee hearing and bring her entire senior class to show support.
Those Madison Parish schoolchildren got a lesson in Louisiana politics that day. The committee, which rumor had it was fresh from a Florida fishing trip courtesy of the railroad lobby, quickly voted the bill down. In response the girl’s father gave an emotional speech in which he said he was deeply ashamed of the committee’s action. Do you know that committee, publicly humiliated, promptly reversed itself and voted the bill out favorably?
At the Public Service Commission I have championed a program called “Federal Railroad Safety State Participation.” This is a program sponsored by the Federal Railroad Administration and in place in 30 states. FRA trains and organizes state enforcement agents to work alongside federal agents in inspecting railroad equipment, track and crossings. This program, already in place in our neighboring states, is tailor-made for Louisiana, which has 2,800 public rail crossings and only one New Orleans-based FRA inspector. Our safety record shows Louisiana ranked fifth and fourth nationally in vehicle-train accidents in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
In 2009 the Legislature authorized the PSC to implement the State Participation Program, but provided no funding. Since our operating rules allow the PSC to collect fees from industries we regulate, we wrote a plan to implement the bill and a schedule of fees to be imposed on the railroads operating in the state. The revenue would permit us to hire, train and equip five PSC railroad inspectors, one for each commissioner district, at a cost of less than $500,000 per year. Sadly, the railroad lobby sued in state court to overturn the fees, and won.
Now the PSC is on record in support of legislation by Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, to authorize the commission to collect the fees from the railroads. Amite is the parish seat of Tangipahoa Parish, which has seen more than its share of horrific accidents at railroad crossings. Given Louisiana’s terrible safety record for railroad accidents, our large number of crossings, and only one federal inspector assigned to the entire state, we hope the Legislature pushes back the special-interest railroad lobby and approves this program. The legislation is House Bill 972. Please ask your House and Senate lawmakers to help.