Senators consider railroad safety, broadband expansion

Feb. 13, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Nebraska lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on a bill aimed at increasing railroad safety. And senators debated how best to expand broadband service in the state.

Sen. Lynne Walz is lead sponsor of the railroad safety bill heard by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. The proposal, which she worked on with railroad unions, would limit trains carrying hazardous materials to 8,500 feet long. It would require railroads to install detectors for overheated or damaged cars every 20 miles. It would impose fines for blocked crossings, allow union representatives into railroad offices to investigate safety problems, require railroads to train fire departments along their routes, and require them to carry insurance to cover accidents and damage.

Walz said it makes common sense. “This bill is really meant to be a comprehensive approach to rail safety measures that should already be happening. LB1212 really just gives the state the ability to have checks and balances to ensure that our communities and our constituents are safe,” she said.

Much of the hearing involved senators asking union and railroad representatives about details. Sen. Carolyn Bosn asked Andrew Foust of SMART – the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation union, about the significance of the 8,500 foot train length limit.

Foust said it would inform crews if a trackside detector noticed a problem, something he said doesn’t happen with longer trains.

“The radios are up in the cab of the locomotive. The train will go over the detector and the detector will give a warning to the crew after the entire train is over. Well, if it's over 10,000 feet, the radio signal won't alert the crew that they have a defective car in their train, because the radio signal’s not strong enough,” Foust said.

But Rob Doerr, chief safety officer for Union Pacific, called the length limitations premature.

“There is no established correlation between train length and blocked crossings or derailments. However, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocated $2 million to the National Academies of Science to study freight car lengths over 7,500 feet. We should wait for those results,” Doerr said.

Sen. Tom Brandt complained to Doerr about trains blocking the crossing in the town of Carleton in his district.

“I have a town in my district where they're losing their minds because the UP is blocking the crossing for hours and hours and hours at a time and we aren’t getting much satisfaction here,” Brandt said.

“It's not in our best interest. We want to keep the trains moving. Because at the end of the day, that's how we make our money,” Doerr replied.

Doerr said the railroad is deploying more sensors and technology to lessen the problem of blocked crossings, and in the meantime, would work with communities to lessen the problem.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposal.

In floor debate Tuesday, lawmakers considered how best to expand broadband service in the state. Brandt is chief sponsor of a bill that would make it easier for public power districts to lease unused fiber optic lines to telecommunications companies to provide service to customers. The bill would remove a requirement for the Public Service Commission to approve such leases. Brandt talked about what public power districts could and could not do under his bill.

“These public power utilities are not seeking to enter the commercial broadband market. However, restrictions on dark fiber leasing, enacted in 2001, hinder their ability to leverage existing infrastructure to address the ongoing rural broadband deficit,” he said.

Senators agreed that especially service is lacking, especially in sparsely populated rural areas. But Sen. Wendy DeBoer said Brandt’s proposal was too open-ended, and would primarily benefit companies that want to use fiber, already paid for by public power customers, to compete in more populated areas that already have service.

“If I'm a company, and I'm trying to decide whether I'm going to use a lease that takes away all of my risk for a fiber network, or if I'm going to use my own funds to take the risk to build a fiber network where there is not one, and I'm choosing between an area where there are lots of customers, or an area where there aren't very many customers, I'm clearly going to go, if the law allows it, to the place where I don't have to take a risk and build my own backbone and there are many, many customers,” she said.

DeBoer said the goal is to prioritize providing service to areas with slow or no service, as opposed to increasing competition in areas that already have it. She used an analogy to illustrate what she and her allies want to accomplish.

“We think everybody should have firsts in the buffet line before others go back for thirds, fourths, fifths -- whatever it is,” she said.

But Brandt argued that by restricting the areas where companies could lease public power fiber, DeBoer’s amendment would limit progress toward better service.

“This amendment will allow cable companies and others to challenge, delay, and stop virtually all broadband deployment in the state. To sum up this amendment, this will take Nebraska backwards: more hurdles and regulation, less to no broadband being utilized. This amendment, the DeBoer amendment, is not in the best interests of Nebraska today,” Brandt said.

The Legislature adjourned before reaching a vote on the amendment or the bill, with senators promising to negotiate on a possible compromise before it comes up again.