CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's not often these days that someone from outside Washington writes to pat Congress on the back for getting something right. But I'd like to take a moment to say that with passage of the Staggers Act 30 years ago, Congress did just that.
October will see the 30th anniversary of the Staggers Act of 1980. This is a family legacy that I am very proud of -- and it was something I recall its author, my father Harley Staggers Sr., counting among his greatest achievements during the 33 years he spent in the U.S. House of Representatives.
There are lessons today that we can take from that bi-partisan effort three decades ago, lessons that are much needed as our nation struggles to regain solid footing amidst lingering economic uncertainty and political change.
Back then, the nation's railroads were crumbling, both physically and financially. Trains all over the country were operating at reduced speeds because of unsafe conditions. That is because unfortunately, railroads simply could not afford to fully maintain the nation's rail infrastructure. Something clearly had to be done.
Rather than resorting to a federal bailout, the Staggers Act did just the opposite and let the marketplace determine whether America's railroads would find their way to recovery. Like now, times were tough for American taxpayers, and the federal coffers were not primed to come to the rescue.
So, the Staggers Act eliminated many regulations that were hindering important changes that needed to happen to ensure railroads could survive. For the first time, railroads were allowed to enter into private agreements with customers, allowing them to better compete with trucks and airlines for business. When the Staggers Act was passed, political opponents predicted that rail rates would skyrocket. Turns out, they were wrong -- today it costs on average half what it did in 1980 to move goods by rail.
Perhaps most importantly, Congress recognized that railroads, unlike trucks, planes or barges, spend their own money on their infrastructure and, therefore, had to make enough money to build and maintain the nation's rail network. Under the Staggers Act, railroads were given authority to base their rates on market demand, rather than have the government set their rates.
The Staggers Act removed many government controls, but it also ensured customer protections. Today, the Surface Transportation Board oversees railroad mergers and other rail-related issues, including rates in cases where there is no effective rail competition.
But despite the fact that today's railroads are safer, more efficient and more affordable, it seems like ever since the Staggers Act was passed, certain rail shippers have been pushing to repeal it, and a handful of politicians have been trying to get government back into the railroad business.
As we mark the anniversary of the Staggers Act, let us not forget what happened the last time our federal government was in the business of running railroads. Let us also not take for granted that railroads today are a self-sustaining industry that has weathered the recession and emerged positioned to help with America's economic recovery. We can and should rely on railroads to sustain themselves. But we must preserve the policies that have and will make that possible.
Staggers, daughter of former U.S. Rep Harley Orrin Staggers (D-W.Va.), is a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates from Fayette County.