Advocates Fault Nebraska for Outdated State Rail Plan

July 13, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

BNSF Train at the BNSF Lincoln Terminal
A BNSF Train at the BNSF Lincoln Terminal (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Nebraska’s statewide rail plan was last updated in 2003, making it the most out-of-date plan in the country, and rail advocates say that has held Nebraska's railroads back.

Under guidance from Federal Rail Administration, the rail branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, state DOTs are supposed to update the railroad document, called a state rail plan, every four years.

The state of New York is next in line and was last updated its rail plan in 2009, while all other states have produced a rail plan within the last 10 years. The document lays out a state’s vision for rail development and projects, while also summarizing facts and details about railroads in the state.

A lack of an up-to-date rail plan is probably the biggest blow to Nebraska’s passenger rail proponents like Richard Schmeling, who is a member of the passenger rail advocacy group ProRail Nebraska. When Schmeling has asked the Nebraska Department of Transportation why the agency hasn’t produced a rail plan in the last 18 years, he said he’s told Nebraska is just watching to see what other states do.

“You'd think that it would be important for Nebraska to grasp our own situation and deal with things within the state of Nebraska," he said, "so that we wouldn't just simply have to wait and see what other states are doing, and all of a sudden realize, 'Whoa, we should get busy here because we're behind the ball on this thing.'"

While a state rail plan is not required by the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, it is highly encouraged by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Even though Nebraska has the oldest plan, it is not the only state with an out-of-date plan. But, without it, Nebraska, which has nearly 3,500 miles of track, may be losing out on grants and other federal money for passenger and regional rail, according to experts and advocates.

Ryan Huff, chief strategy officer at NDOT, said the state agency doesn’t currently have plans to update its 2003 plan, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever.

“When the DOT looks at doing different plans for different modes, it has to make business sense. There needs to be a business case for it," Huff said. "We've got a lot of different needs out there – a lot of different stakeholders – and we only have so much time and resources to invest in. So, in the past or recent past, I'm guessing there probably hasn't been a demonstrated benefit for us and our stakeholders in pursuing that and investing resources.”

Huff, who has been with NDOT for 11 years but only served two or three years as the chief strategy officer, said he’s partially speculating as to why the plan hasn’t been updated because he hasn't been there the whole time.

Under a 2013 U.S. law, rail plans are supposed to be submitted to the FRA every four years. Twenty-three total states have either submitted plans in the last four years or will submit a plan by the end of 2021 or 2022, according to Nebraska Public Media News research. That means a majority of states fall into Nebraska's out-of-date category.

"Nebraska may be willfully giving up the opportunity to receive grants and federal money by not having a current rail plan," said Dan Bilka, a member of the Rail Passengers Association from South Dakota, who adds that having a plan is key a consideration of the FRA in awarding grants under certain programs for passenger rail. There are, however, other programs which do not require an up-to-date plan, according to the FRA.

Iowa’s DOT is one of those 23 states that regularly updates its rail plan and had been doing so even before the federal government first recommended it in 2008.

Amanda Martin, the freight and passenger policy coordinator at the Iowa DOT, serves as the lead author on Iowa's rail plan. She said gathering all the information and putting the plan together can be an expensive and arduous process.

"But we deem it as an important process because we want to make sure that our railroads are eligible for any type of federal funding that would require it be identified, as well as any other entity that might be applying that would be eligible for those funds.”

Nebraska’s rail plan – or lack thereof – has not affected Iowa, Martin said. It could potentially if Iowa had a project that spilled across the state border and the FRA needed to see it in a Nebraska Rail Plan, she said.

Another group that would like to see Nebraska update its plan are the regional and short line railroads, which are freight carriers, but much smaller than the Omaha-based Union Pacific or Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF, for example. Those two companies are the biggest private freight companies in the U.S. and, according to the 2003 rail plan, account for 77% of Nebraska's rail line.

For those smaller freight carriers, the companies are specifically asked by the FRA if their proposed project is in a state rail plan, according to Chuck Baker, the president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. A short line or regional rail project being listed in a rail plan is not a requirement, but it appears it’s favorable in the eyes of FRA, Baker said.

“That's because being in a state rail plan is indicative that people in the state have thought about this, there's been community engagement, it fits in with some sort of broader state transportation plan and it's supported," Baker said. "The federal government, it sometimes feels like they have unlimited money, but I swear it's not actually unlimited. So they like to spend it in a way that it's not going to be wasted."

Richard Schmeling of ProRail Nebraska, a passenger rail advocacy group, stands with his model train set in his living room
Richard Schmeling of ProRail Nebraska, a passenger rail advocacy group, stands with his model train set in his living room. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

For Schmeling and Nebraska’s passenger rail advocates, the rail plan is just one part of a long battle. As they fight for increased Amtrak services, the group alleges NDOT is stuck in the past. Schmeling points to NDOT being named the Nebraska Department of Roads until 2017 when it merged with the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics.

“We were the last state in the 50 states to go to the broader spectrum Department of Transportation," Schmeling said. "Unfortunately, the highway-only mentality became very much ingrained out there.”

Huff said the lion’s share of what the state agency does indeed falls back on roads, but there's a reason for that.

“That's where most of our money comes from to begin with," he said. "From the very beginning, it's going to look very one-sided, but I do think that we're making strides into changing that culture and trying to be more multimodal, as they say. And so it's going to take some time, but it's something that we're constantly looking at.”

Schmeling and his group ProRail Nebraska are hopeful, however, because NDOT has a new leader at the helm. John Selmer, the new department director, hails from the Iowa DOT and holds 31 years of experience at an organization that regularly updates its rail plan.