June 19, 2015 9:00 AM, EDT

Senate Passes Surface Transportation Board Reform Bill

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

The U.S. Senate approved a bill intended to make the Surface Transportation Board more responsive to industry and shipper needs by accelerating and simplifying its review of rate cases.

The measure, introduced by Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), was passed by unanimous consent. There is not yet any House companion measure to the bill known as S.B. 808, which was introduced in March by Thune and Nelson as the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2015.

“These reforms will help make the STB a more efficient, effective and accountable agency for the benefit of shippers and railroads alike,” Thune said when the bill was introduced. “It’s time for Congress to address some inefficiencies in the agency.”

The measure would give the agency new power to initiate investigations into rail service difficulties, such as last year’s rail delays and congestion that included grain shipping delays in South Dakota and elsewhere. Today, STB can’t initiate such investigations on its own.

Unlike STB legislation over the past two decades, the measure was supported by both the Association of American Railroads and multiple shipper groups. AAR opposed past measures proposed by former Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.

The measure also directs the rail regulatory agency to find new, faster and less expensive methods to review cases.

Its structure also would be changed by expanding the agency to five members from the current three. STB has two commissioners, while Daniel Elliott III awaits Senate confirmation of his re-appointment to the agency by President Obama.