Transportation Reforms Strengthen, Provide Certainty to
Farmers, Ranchers, and Businesses
By Senator John Thune
With all the Senate has accomplished this year, it is hard to believe that we are just six months into the Republican majority. The Senate has passed nearly 50 bipartisan bills since January, and we are on pace to pass many more. We have made bipartisanship a cornerstone of the GOP-led Senate because when the two parties work together, the American people win.
With a new majority, came a fresh set of leaders at the numerous Senate committees, which is where the important groundwork is laid before legislation comes to the Senate floor. For years, this process was ignored under Democrat leadership, and the legislative process suffered because of it. Thankfully, that has changed, and our committees are once again hard at work.
I was among the new set of committee leaders that took over earlier this year, and am humbled that my colleagues selected me to lead the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has broad jurisdiction over significant issues that are important to South Dakota, including telecommunications, aviation, rail, highway safety, and interstate commerce. The committee has already passed a number of improvements this year.
South Dakota businesses and agriculture producers faced numerous challenges last year during the nine-month labor dispute at 29 West Coast container ports. During this prolonged slowdown, many businesses and agriculture producers faced inventory challenges during the holiday season because shipments on the West Coast were severely backed-up.
Some estimates say that these disputes cost the economy up to $2.5 billion per day, and the resulting strife was widely cited as a contributing cause to the anemic 0.2 percent annual growth rate of the U.S. economy in the first quarter of 2015.
To help prevent a reoccurrence, I led a group of senators in introducing a set of common-sense sunshine reforms that would help with early identification of port labor disruptions before they inflict damage on the economy. These reforms would also require yearly port metrics reporting, which would create a new level of transparency and accountability for U.S. ports and give businesses and agriculture producers across the country greater certainty. Last month, my bill cleared the Commerce Committee, and I am hopeful that the full Senate will consider this legislation soon.
Freight rail is another issue that is critically important to South Dakota businesses and agriculture producers because of our dependence on transporting commodities and products across the country and around the globe. Because of the serious rail backlogs that occurred at the end of 2013 and into early 2015, I introduced legislation last Congress, and again this year, to provide common-sense reforms to the Surface Transportation Board to address the added costs and uncertainty that many South Dakota agriculture producers and businesses encountered when they were unable to get reliable rail transportation they depend on.
I have worked with numerous South Dakota groups for years on this bill, which has strong bipartisan support and the endorsement of organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, the South Dakota Grain & Feed Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperatives, and the South Dakota Farmers Union. This bill passed the Senate unanimously late last month and is awaiting consideration in the House.
Once these reforms are in place, South Dakota farmers, ranchers, and businesses will be in a stronger position to ensure that they get a fair deal on critical shipments, coming or going.