Sunday, February 26, 2017

HR 988 Introduced – Hazmat Rail Routing Study

Earlier this month Rep Ellison (D,MN) introduced HR 988, a bill that would require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to arrange with the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies to conduct a study on the “cost and impact of rerouting freight rail traffic containing hazardous material to avoid transportation of such hazardous material through urban areas” {§1(a)}.

This bill is similar to HR 1290 that Ellison introduced in the 114th Congress. No action was taken on the earlier bill.

The Study

The study required by this bill would address:

• The benefits of rerouting freight rail traffic containing hazardous material to alternate railroad routes that avoid urban areas, including benefits to the health and safety of the individuals living in such urban areas {§1(b)};
• The benefits of construction of alternative railroad routes that avoid urban areas for transportation of freight rail containing hazardous material;
• The logistical feasibility of rerouting or constructing new routes; and
• The costs of rerouting or constructing new routes.

The bill authorizes $850,000 for the study.

Moving Forward

Ellison is not a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to which this bill was assigned for consideration. This means that it is unlikely that the bill will be considered by that committee. Since the bill does authorize the spending there is going to be some basic opposition to this bill since that money would have to come from some other part of the DOT budget.

Ellison made one significant change in the drafting of HR 988. He stripped out the ‘findings’ section that was included in HR 1290. That section was a lengthy listing of facts about the hazards associated with the shipping of crude oil by rail. Since the study being required in the bill refers to hazardous materials in general, it really did not make a lot of sense to include it, except as a political statement to catch the eye of voters back home. It probably engendered more opposition to the bill in Congress than it gained him in political points in a safe congressional district.

If Ellison is serious about getting this bill passed (and it’s second introduction would seem to indicate some level of seriousness) then he is going to have to do more on this version of the bill than he did in the last Congress. He basically has two realistic options, convince some influential member of the Transportation Committee to cosponsor this bill and then get it considered by the committee, or introduce the bill as an amendment to either (both?) the transportation spending or authorization bills.


With the relatively small size of the urban areas affected in this bill, only 30,000 residents, re-routing hazardous material shipments around all ‘urban areas’ would certainly not be possible in most areas of the country. Cities and towns grew up around railroad terminals as a matter of commerce. This makes the of looking at the construction of bypass lines around urbanized areas the only real way of avoiding potential hazmat accidents in such areas.

But, even if hazardous materials transiting around urban areas were possible it would not completely eliminate the potential hazards as most of the places that use those hazardous materials are located in or around urban areas (given the broad definition used in this bill). This means that that the hazmat railcars would still need to go into railyards (frequently located near city centers), be switched and then transit urban rail lines to their destination rail sidings. Relocating those railyards and urban rail lines would be much more expensive than constructing bypass lines around cities and towns.

Even so, a study of this sort really could be a valuable tool for taking a realistic look at the rail hazmat routing issue and see which large urban areas could realistically be bypassed. With the new administration committed to supporting infrastructure improvements this might be an especially beneficial time to have this conversation.

With PHMSA’s adoption of its rail routing rules in 2008 (49 CFR 172.820) the railroads have been collecting and analyzing route selection data for the most dangerous forms of hazardous materials (most recently including crude oil). While the railroads are not required to routinely share that data with PHMSA, this bill could require them to share the data with the Transportation Research Board as part of the study. That data would provide a wealth of detailed information that would not be otherwise reasonably accessible to the Board.

No comments:

/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */