STB to Review Whether Calif. Rail Idling Plan Violates Federal Interstate Commerce Law

By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the March 10 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Surface Transportation Board is stepping into a California rail dispute by announcing its intention to decide whether a federal interstate commerce law prevents a local agency from advancing its plan to reduce locomotive idling.

The case involves STB, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of California and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The latter agency creates air-quality standards in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, which has the nation’s worst air quality.

STB’s involvement began Jan. 24, when EPA asked the agency “to consider whether two rules concerning railroad locomotive idling issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District would be pre-empted by [interstate commerce law] if those rules were approved into the California State Implementation Plan under the Clean Air Act.”

“This is a matter of widespread and significant public interest and warrants thorough consideration by the board after the development of a complete record,” STB said in its decision released Feb. 26.

The issue of locomotive idling first was raised in 2006 by the air quality management district. At that time, the local agency imposed limits on idling, which were challenged by the Association of American Railroads and individual railroads. The local agency’s rules were thrown out in 2007 by a U.S. District Court ruling.

Subsequently, the local air-quality agency asked to have the same locomotive idling rules incorporated into California’s state implementation plan. EPA has the authority to approve or reject changes to state implementation plans, such as the SCAQMD’s proposal.

The agency requested the state of California to include its rules three years ago, and EPA considered whether to allow such a step for two years before asking STB to get involved.

Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the SCAQMD, said the rules were adopted “because the board was concerned about the health impacts of rail locomotive idling.”

The rules were sparked, he said, by citizens’ complaints that locomotives were idling for hours and days on tracks close to residences.

He also said attorneys from the railroads recommended during the earlier court proceeding that the local agency include their rules in California’s state implementation plan, which is what the SCAQMD is requesting.

The Association of American Railroads, along with BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad, urged the STB in regulatory filings to rule that the local agency’s rules are still pre-empted by federal law. The two railroads are the only major carriers operating in California.

The 41-page AAR submission said that trying to advance an idling-reduction requirement in a state implementation plan doesn’t change the fact that interstate commerce law pre-empts the agency’s plan. The rail group stated that the Clean Air Act requires that any provision of a state implementation plan cannot be prohibited by federal law.

The rail group also noted that the agency’s rules regulate when locomotives can idle, unless they are equipped with idle-reduction technology.

“The [SCAQMD] rules are also equipment-forcing regulations because the only practical way the railroads can avoid the burdensome regulations is to install more stringent anti-idling equipment than required by EPA,” AAR said.

“We are in favor of locomotive idling regulations,” Glen Kedzie, energy and environmental affairs counsel for American Trucking Associations, told Transport Topics.

That stance is consistent with ATA’s commitment through its sustainability plan to reductions in emissions, he said.

“[Trucking] is making all the corrective changes, whether it is fuel or emission reductions,” Kedzie said. “Usually, we are the ones who are in all the crosshairs, but this [STB case] has no implications for us.”

California has a five-minute idling limit for trucks in on-road operations.

Kedzie said states have set idling limits because there is no clear indication of EPA’s jurisdiction. That’s because the Clean Air Act does not specifically address the issue, he explained.

He also outlined little-noticed consequences.

“California is doing whatever they have to do to show they are making progress on air quality so they don’t lose federal dollars for highway funds and other programs,” Kedzie said.