U.S. freight railroads are trying to take advantage of a train enthusiast president who’s concerned about global warming with a lobbying campaign depicting their industry as a solution to climate change.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents such heavyweights as CSX Corp. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe, is advancing policy proposals it says would help pare greenhouse gas emissions—including some that would disadvantage competitors trucking goods.
The proposals include replacing the current gasoline tax with a fee on vehicle miles traveled and dedicated government funding for passenger rail that could appeal to President Joe Biden’s fondness for Amtrak. The group is outlining its ideas in a white paper being released Monday.
“This administration has been very clear about wanting to weave climate into its broader efforts,” said the association’s chief executive, Ian Jefferies. The rail industry hasn’t aggressively engaged on climate policy before, but “it’s a very relevant moment in time to be talking about this.”
The lobbying push underscores how climate policy decisions made by the Biden administration and Congress could create winners and losers across the U.S. economy. It also illustrates how the administration’s focus on climate change is spurring U.S. transportation companies to get more aggressive in shrinking their carbon footprints and shaping federal policy on the issue.
Central to the group’s pitch: Rail is the most environmentally sound way to transport goods across the U.S., and policy makers should encourage more of it.
“There’s no denying that moving goods by rail is more efficient and emissions-friendly than moving goods over the highway,” Jefferies said. “Nobody benefits from sitting in traffic for hours and hours and their freight sitting in traffic.”
The transportation sector is the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., but the vast majority of those planet-warming emissions come from cars and trucks. Rail is responsible for just 2% of sector’s emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, even though railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume.
According to the association, if 10% of freight shipped by the largest trucks were moved by rail, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by more than 17 million tons annually.
The group is lobbying for government-backed research in alternatives for powering trains, building on industry efforts such as a BNSF Railway Co. test of a battery electric locomotive and a Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Canadian National LLC pilot project exploring hydrogen fuel cell locomotives.
The association also sees openings in market-based climate policies, such as a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, and opportunities to transport carbon dioxide captured at power plants and manufacturing facilities.
The association’s chief push is for overhauling how the U.S. pays for roads, highways and bridges.
Right now, the government relies on gas tax revenue deposited in a Federal Highway Trust Fund to make those investments. But in practice, that tax supplies far less than what’s needed—about $34 million of the $50 million the government spends annually on infrastructure.
The rail association’s long-term prescription is a fee based on vehicle miles traveled and a surcharge tied to fuel efficiency. Jefferies cast the change as necessary to put trucking and rail on even footing and restore a user-pays approach to highways.
“When you level the playing field, inherently, you get the other benefits of pushing freight onto the rails and reducing fuel consumption, reducing emissions released into the atmosphere,” he said. “This isn’t trying to create an advantage for rail; it’s trying to right a disincentive that currently exists based on a dramatic subsidy that is going into the infrastructure that our competitors use day in and day out.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has already signaled his openness to a miles-traveled approach.
“Whatever happens in the short term in terms of our reliance on the gas tax, let’s remember that cars are using less gas and eventually no gas as electric vehicles kick in,” he said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio’s “Sound On” show Friday. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have to think in a more long-term way about how we fund our road infrastructure, and there’s no time like the present.”