Short Lines Draw the Short Stick

Unfair fight

by James A. Bacon

Pity Virginia’s short-line railroads. There are nine of them, they serve 150 industrial customers and they operate 500 miles of track, hauling products from peanuts and lumber to stone and steel. But they are no match for the big hogs on the farm when it comes to grubbing for state and federal money.

Most of the state’s short lines came into existence when Virginia’s dominant railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX Corp., decided to cut unprofitable rail lines. Rather than leave industrial customers twisting in the wind, the big railroads agreed to sell or lease the lines to independent companies that could operate them at lower cost.

Whit Clement, secretary of transportation under the Warner administration, made the case Wednesday to the Commonwealth Transportation Board that the short lines merited greater state government support. The short lines provide an alternative to heavy trucks, he said, and by taking trucks off the road, they reduce wear and tear on state highways, lessen dependency on foreign oil and cut the emission of pollutants. A truck emits more than three times as much nitrogen oxide per ton-mile as a locomotive, he said.

A Buckingham Branch Line locomotive.

The short lines traditionally have accessed a number of state funding programs, including a $23 million-a-year rail enhancement fund, a $10 million rail preservation fund, a $3 million rail industrial access fund and an intercity passenger and rail operating capital fund. The problem, said Clement, is that the funds available to freight railroads have stayed the same or even declined as the state has shifted resources from freight to passenger rail projects. “There is strong competition for the rail enhancement money.”

Failure to maintain funding for freight rail will result in more heavy trucks on the road, Clement told the CTB. One heavy truck, he added, has the same impact on roadway maintenance as 90 automobiles.

In response to CTB rural representative Allen Louderback, Clement conceded that the lack of funding was not at present halting any specific project from moving forward. But he did say “there could be some great opportunities in the future” that could get stalled.

It is an article of faith in Virginia’s railroad industry that trucks don’t pay their fair share of motor fuel taxes to cover the cost of maintaining state roads. The under-tax amounts to a subsidy for trucks. By contrast, railroads must pay the full cost of their own maintenance. Rather than seek government grants, why not push the General Assembly to raise the motor fuels tax on trucks?

That option, said Clement, “is not on the table.” The trucking lobby is just too powerful. The freight railroads believe they stand a better chance clawing back funds from the passenger rail lobby.

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  1. Excellent commentary. I was not aware of the short lines as a modern phenomena.

    The obvious response is to let the free market work and if trucks beat short lines, so be it.

    But if trucks are getting essentially subsidized and that results in trucks out competing short lines and ultimately that results in more truck usage that causes more damage to roads, especially older ones not designed for heavy truck use – then is the best solution for the state to also subsidize short lines?

    Or is it not the best but the most viable politically?

    This very pessimistically illustrates just how money can and does influence legislation as well as state policies to enrich those associated with the trucking industry at the expense of taxpayers – AND at the expense of the same taxpayers as consumers.

    We keep hearing all this right wing drivel about parasites and job killing regulations and all that blather and in many respects this article illustrates that the biggest hogs at the trough are not those welfare queens but the big hawgs who shower money on politicians.

    How can you convince the welfare queens that they are scum-sucking miscreants when they are modelling their behavior after these welfare-sucking companies – to get their “share”?

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    If you are hauling heavy commodities in bulk, rail is the way to go. It is generally greener, too, than trucks

  3. We may actually have “short lines’ in Fredericksburg. I was just unaware who owned them and thought the major rails owned them.

    We have a coal plant, and a regional landfill, for instance that are 15 miles out of town away from the CSX mainline tracks.

    we have other rail spurs that go to industrial parks and regional distribution centers.

    but if it boils down to trucks being able to operate cheaper than short lines because of one-side govt taxation / subsidization policies, then the reason that short lines are not profitable is not because they lose straight up to trucks on a level playing field basis.

    I might add that the original purpose of the coal plant short line was to supply sand and gravel to the Fredericksburg Area AND Northern Virginia and now those mines use dump trucks.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    A former Secretary of Transportation admits that the trucking industry has so bought and paid for the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond that there can be no discussion of raising the motor fuel tax on trucks?

    And you see the big news as being the fight between short rail and passenger rail for funding?


    What a corrupt set of political elite we have here.

  5. The power of the trucking lobby in Virginia is something to behold. I’ve got nothing against truckers — they’re just trying to make a living like everybody else. But I do have a problem with the way they wield their political power to avoid their proportionate share of taxes. A big problem.

  6. It’s not just in Va. The truck vs rail conundrum is pretty much nationwide and while you and I see the interstates as built to enable us to travel across the country to visit different places, the trucking lobby sees the Interstate and states primary roads as their ..THEIR transportation infrastructure –

    and when you think about it – if the trucks get the interstates from their gas taxes and the rails tend to their own, owned track right-of-way – are the trucks getting a de-facto subsidy – i.e. are they getting more in infrastructure than they are paying in fuel taxes?

    I’ve not heard this argument cogently and convincingly made by anyone though inside of BR, TMT makes this case but usually without references and evidence.

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