To say that events feel unsettled these days might be an understatement. Usual tensions around the election combined with social upheavals and an unprecedented global pandemic can seem overwhelming at times.

We know, however, that Minnesotans and all Americans have a history of rising to the occasion and working through our differences toward a brighter destiny. When we needed it most, our state Legislature responded to the pandemic earlier this year by passing a bipartisan response bill in a single day.

Sometimes, it is the quiet, seemingly small actions in the background that keep things functioning and provide momentum for better days ahead.

Oct. 14 is the 40th anniversary of one such action — the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. This week I joined hundreds of other local leaders across the country in reminding Congress about this important legislation and why its implications for the economy still matter today.

In the late 1970s, the country was fighting its way out of recession and a period of economic stagnation that had contributed to a national malaise and led to seismic change in the 1980 presidential election. Yet, before that “Reagan Revolution,” President Jimmy Carter signed into law a below-the-radar measure that set the stage for unprecedented success.

The Staggers Act was an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill (95% of voting senators and representatives approved it) that partly deregulated U.S. freight railroads — with incredible results.

Pre-Staggers, freight railroads were dying under the force of overwhelming government regulation. They were going bankrupt, so unprofitable that deferred maintenance led to railcars just falling off the track while standing still (a “standing derailment” it was called). Staggers changed all that.

By freeing freight railroads to operate like other businesses in the marketplace — setting their own rates, focusing on profitable routes rather than those mandated by the government, entering into contracts with shippers, etc. — this new deregulatory policy set the stage for an American railroad renaissance.

Since 1980, privately owned U.S. freight railroads have invested $710 billion of their own capital into repairing, maintaining and upgrading their infrastructure and technology. Since then, rail rates are down over 40% (adjusted for inflation), railroads are safer than ever before, and fuel efficiency has nearly doubled.

Railroads large and small continue to connect Twin Cities companies — along with farms, mines and factories across the state — to the global economy. Eighteen freight railroads operate over 4,258 miles of track that crisscross Minnesota.

None of that would be possible without the largely unknown Staggers Act. One of the best parts of this four-decade-old legislation is how it still works today, allowing railroads to modernize for the future while still protecting rail shippers. After all, all transportation modes, including rail carriers, face changing markets today that require massive investment to keep pace with ever-rising amounts of freight.

The success of Staggers is why I was proud to join with over 1,000 community and business leaders, elected officials and thought leaders in signing a letter celebrating this visionary feat. The letter also calls on railroad regulators and legislators in Washington, D.C., to preserve the balance in the Staggers Act and maintain it for the future.

With all of the upheaval in Washington and across the country, it could be easy to lose sight of a “small” issue like rail regulation, but freight rail is the backbone of the economy and will be key to economic recovery.

We should all hope that Congress and regulators remember the lessons of Staggers, preserve balanced rail regulation and recognize that there are still issues large and small where bipartisan action can lead to hugely successful reforms and where it is all right to agree to agree.

 

Vance Stuehrenberg represents Second District on the Blue Earth County Board of Commissioners and chairs the Association of Minnesota Counties Transportation and Infrastructure Policy Committee.