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ProRail Nebraska -- Nebraska's Association of Railroad Passengers and Supporters












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By Richard Schmeling - April 18, 2023

The legislative bill of main interest to ProRail in the 2023 Nebraska Legislative Session is LB 44 which seeks to have Nebraska rejoin the Midwest Interstate Rail Passenger Compact (MIPRC).

LB 44 was introduced by Lincoln Senator George Dungan. It is the same as the bill introduced by Sen. Eliot Bostar in the 2022 Session. It would have Nebraska rejoin MIPRC after an absence of several years. A plus regarding rejoining is that MIPRC has told Sen. Dungan that when we rejoin, we will not have to catch up on the dues for the years when our state was not a member.

LB44 had a hearing before the Transportation & Telecommunications Committee on March 6, 2023. ProRail President Matt Roque testified in favor of the bill and did his usual excellent job. I testified in favor of LB44 as President of Citizens for Improved Transit (CFIT). A representative from SMART (representing railroad labor unions) also testified in favor of the bill. No one spoke in opposition. A number of letters were received by the Committee to be part of the record. There were five letters in support and six in opposition. I have obtained copies of all these letters. Among the support letters was strong endorsement from the Sierra Club of Nebraska authored by Clyde Anderson. The letters in opposition were mostly from the western part of Nebraska. One of them was for the wrong bill, and the others were concerned about their taxes being increased if Nebraska rejoined MIPRC.

Although Senators Blood, Hunt, Aguilar, Bostar, Day, Walz, and Raybould added their names as co-sponsors of LB44, we were unable to get a senator or the Committee to designate LB44 as a priority bill. Such designation helps to ensure that the bill will reach the floor for consideration by the full Legislature.

A device for getting LB44 to the floor would be to amend it to another bill that has the priority designation. This was explored with Sen. Dungan's office. Inquiry was made to Sen. Walz who has a bill that did get advanced to the floor, but this bill also lacks priority designation and will probably not be taken up this session. Other bills with priority designations involve different subjects than railroading, and it would be difficult to incorporate the provisions of LB44 into any of them.

The net result is that LB44 will not pass this session, but it will automatically carry over to the 2024 session. During that session we may be able to get a senator to designate it as a priority bill.

Other bills regarding railroading which ProRail has tracked are not likely to pass during this session. LB31, introduced by Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte, would require train crews of at least two persons on most trains operated on railroads in Nebraska.

Many railroaders appeared at the hearing before the Transportation & Telecommunications Committee. I spoke in favor of the bill as the President of CFIT. Opposition testimony came from Union Pacific, BNSF, and Nebraska Central.

This bill is currently stalled in the Committee. It does not have a priority designation and will not likely be passed in this session. Sen. Jacobson has stated that he will designate this bill as a priority bill in the 2024 Session which will help move it along.

On the national scene, a series of railroad derailments involving most of the Class 1 railroads has caused the public to express concerns about railroad safety. Recently the Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern have indicated that they will no longer advocate for one-man crews. The Federal Railroad Administration has announced regulations which would require a two-man crew, and such a measure would apply nationwide and negate any state law to the contrary. For now, it may be that LB31 is not needed; but the railroad unions would still like to have it passed.

LB794 would task the Nebraska Dept. of Transportation (NDOT) for providing safety standards for public transit in Nebraska and enforcing such regulations.

A bit of background may be helpful here. Basic safety rules promulgation and enforcement for railroads used to be provided by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, and the FRA took over responsibility for railroad safety from the ICC. FRA inspectors regularly conduct inspections of locomotives, railroad cars, and track. In Nebraska during ICC days and continuing to the present, the Nebraska Railway Commission (now the Public Service Commission) also had inspectors to enforce safety, mostly track inspection.

LB796 would transfer this state inspection responsibility from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to the NDOT.

During testimony on LB796, it came out that the PSC has two inspector slots. One of them is unfilled and the other is filled by a person who is on an extended medical leave. So no inspectors from the PSC are currently active. In view of the increased attention regarding railroad derailments, senators on the Transportation & Telecommunications Committee were concerned about this lack of inspectors which is probably why LB796 is moving along towards passage.

Another railroad-related bill is LB234 introduced by Sen. Lynn Walz of Fremont. This bill would require the NDOT to report to the Legislature on the number of complaints filed each year regarding crossings blocked for ten minutes or longer. I testified in favor of this bill at the hearing before the Transportation & Telecommunications Committee on behalf of CFIT. The senators on the Committee were very interested in the subject matter of the bill. Several senators indicated that they had received calls from voters in their districts about blocked crossings.

Of all the railroad-related bills, this bill is the only one which advanced to the floor and is placed on General File but has not had its first reading. It is not a priority bill but may be taken up now that several other major bills have been disposed of.

Personnel Changes

Sen. Suzanne Geist who had been serving as the Chairperson of the Transportation & Telecommunications Committee this session resigned during April. She was a candidate for Mayor of Lincoln and wanted to devote more time to the mayoral race.

Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus who had been Vice-Chair was elected to chair of the Committee. Sen Barry DeKay of Niobrara, a first term senator, was elected to be Vice Chair.

Governor Jim Pillen appointed Carolyn Bosn as the replacement for Sen. Geist who will serve out the balance of the term. She will serve on the same committees as Sen. Geist.

Bill Carryover

Legislative bills not enacted in this session will carry over to the 2024 Session automatically. During the next session, senators may opt to introduce new bills and give them priority status, or they can designate a bill like LB44, which is a non-priority bill this session, as a priority bill in 2024. We will work between sessions to make LB44 a priority bill.

Looking Ahead to the Next Session

During this session we did not introduce a bill concerning commuter rail service between Lincoln and Omaha. Such a concept will be part of a bill next session which will:

  1.     Task the NDOT with updating the State Rail Plan to cover passenger rail as well as freight rail, and

  2.     As part of this do a survey of routes for proposed new passenger service in Nebraska. This will include Lincoln to Omaha commuter rail, a second pair of Amtrak trains between Chicago and Denver on the BNSF route which would serve Nebraska during daytime hours, investigate the proposed Chicago to Omaha/Lincoln new trains to run on the Iowa Interstate as promoted by the MIPRC, and other possible services like trains on the Union Pacific.

Group calls on Nebraska to update plan, create passenger rail between Omaha and Lincoln

By Luna Stephens Mar 4, 2023 Omaha World Herald

(Press coverage of ProRail's March 4 Meeting in Lincoln)

Advocates for passenger rail transportation in Nebraska renewed their calls Saturday for more state action on proposed rail projects, including a long-dreamed commuter line between Omaha and Lincoln. Chief among the issues raised is the fact the state hasn't updated its rail plan, a critical document needed to secure federal funding, in 20 years.

"The state of Nebraska is shooting itself in the foot by not updating the plan," said Matt Roque, president of ProRail Nebraska, which hosted Saturday's meeting in Lincoln. The group advocates for improved passenger rail and other forms of public transportation.

Nebraska's most recent rail plan was released in 2003 following a study by the Nebraska Transit and Rail Advisory Council.

The Federal Railroad Administration advises states to submit an updated rail plan every four years. Without one, states are ineligible for most federal funding for rail projects, Roque said.

Alongside calls for updating Nebraska's rail plan, advocates also voiced support for Legislative Bill 44. The bill, introduced by State Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln, would reinstate Nebraska as a member of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The group, according to its website, advocates for rail projects in member states and coordinates interaction between them.

Nebraska joined the compact in 2001 but left it in 2018 following a legislative bill passed in 2015 that reasoned the $197,650 in membership fees paid over 14 years was not worth the outcome. Different state lawmakers in recent years have introduced bills to rejoin the group. While membership fees will be increasing to about $25,000 a year, Dungan said that's a small price in the grand scheme of the state's budget.

The Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on LB 44 on Monday at the State Capitol. "There seems to be a renewed interest in rail both from an excitement perspective and a safety perspective," Dungan told the group. "I think we're really seeing bipartisan efforts to prioritize rail issues." Being part of the rail compact would make it possible to help shape efforts to create rail service between cities across the Midwest, Roque said.

States in the group include Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota and Wisconsin, according to its website. Nebraska is eligible to join, as is Iowa, Ohio and South Dakota. "You're never going to get anywhere if you’re not sitting there at the table and are part of the discussions that are happening," he said.

Nebraska's 2003 rail plan proposed a potential commuter rail line between Lincoln and Omaha that would run along the existing Amtrak route. The plan identified the route as the most promising commuter rail project in the state, with an estimated potential of 78,000 to 116,000 passenger trips per year if the rail line had been open in 2010.

Roque believes developments since 2003 further point to the potential success of rail. Amtrak had seen increased ridership before the pandemic and those numbers have since rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, progress has been made on enforcing regulations that give passenger trains the right of way over freight trains. "There's so many benefits environmentally and economically," Roque said. "The economic development that happens around train stations is proven over and over again."

At Saturday's meeting, ProRail Nebraska's members discussed their continued support for the potential rail line between Lincoln and Omaha, noting it would benefit students, workers and people commuting for events like Husker football games and Creighton basketball games.

Members also discussed the potential for rail routes in central and western Nebraska, including to cities such as Grand Island, North Platte and Scottsbluff by way of existing Amtrak or freight train routes.

The first step for ProRail Nebraska moving forward will be working with state leaders to get an updated rail plan in place. "Nothing is going to happen in this state without a state rail plan," Roque said.

Nebraska lawmaker seeks state funding for Omaha streetcar - if it extended north toward airport

City of Omaha voices support for the proposal by State Sen. Justin Wayne, who said he was a streetcar critic

BY: CINDY GONZALEZ -  Nebraska Examiner - FEBRUARY 24, 2023 

LINCOLN - The controversial Omaha streetcar project could get a $100 million jolt from the State of Nebraska under a plan before the Legislature - that is, if the route were extended into North Omaha and to the airport.

A measure presented Friday by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha to the Legislature's Appropriations Committee asks for the state funds to establish and operate a streetcar that would connect to Eppley Airfield.

In effect, Wayne said, his Legislative Bill 477 is a way to put pressure on the City of Omaha to take the $300 million-plus streetcar project through less advantaged areas and to the airport, and also to "set some standards on who gets included and who doesn't."

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Omaha Modern Streetcar Launches New Website

Click here to visit the website.

ProRail Nebraska supports improved public transit services including the Omaha Streetcar Project.

Advocates Fault Nebraska for Outdated State Rail Plan

By Will Bauer, Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media

Nebraska's statewide rail plan was last updated in 2003, making it the most out-of-date plan in the country, and rail advocates say that has held Nebraska's railroads back.

Under guidance from Federal Rail Administration, the rail branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, state DOTs are supposed to update the railroad document, called a state rail plan, every four years.

The state of New York is next in line and was last updated its rail plan in 2009, while all other states have produced a rail plan within the last 10 years. The document lays out a state's vision for rail development and projects, while also summarizing facts and details about railroads in the state.

A lack of an up-to-date rail plan is probably the biggest blow to Nebraska's passenger rail proponents like Richard Schmeling, who is a member of the passenger rail advocacy group ProRail Nebraska. When Schmeling has asked the Nebraska Department of Transportation why the agency hasn't produced a rail plan in the last 18 years, he said he's told Nebraska is just watching to see what other states do.

You'd think that it would be important for Nebraska to grasp our own situation and deal with things within the state of Nebraska," he said, "so that we wouldn't just simply have to wait and see what other states are doing, and all of a sudden realize, 'Whoa, we should get busy here because we're behind the ball on this thing.'"

While a state rail plan is not required by the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, it is highly encouraged by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Even though Nebraska has the oldest plan, it is not the only state with an out-of-date plan. But, without it, Nebraska, which has nearly 3,500 miles of track, may be losing out on grants and other federal money for passenger and regional rail, according to experts and advocates. Ryan Huff, chief strategy officer at NDOT, said the state agency doesn't currently have plans to update its 2003 plan, but that doesn't mean it won't ever.

"When the DOT looks at doing different plans for different modes, it has to make business sense. There needs to be a business case for it," Huff said. "We've got a lot of different needs out there - a lot of different stakeholders - and we only have so much time and resources to invest in. So, in the past or recent past, I'm guessing there probably hasn't been a demonstrated benefit for us and our stakeholders in pursuing that and investing resources."

Huff, who has been with NDOT for 11 years but only served two or three years as the chief strategy officer, said he's partially speculating as to why the plan hasn't been updated because he hasn't been there the whole time.

Under a 2013 U.S. law, rail plans are supposed to be submitted to the FRA every four years. Twenty-three total states have either submitted plans in the last four years or will submit a plan by the end of 2021 or 2022, according to Nebraska Public Media News research. That means a majority of states fall into Nebraska's out-of-date category.

"Nebraska may be willfully giving up the opportunity to receive grants and federal money by not having a current rail plan," said Dan Bilka, a member of the Rail Passengers Association from South Dakota, who adds that having a plan is key a consideration of the FRA in awarding grants under certain programs for passenger rail. There are, however, other programs which do not require an up-to-date plan, according to the FRA.

Iowa's DOT is one of those 23 states that regularly updates its rail plan and had been doing so even before the federal government first recommended it in 2008. Amanda Martin, the freight and passenger policy coordinator at the Iowa DOT, serves as the lead author on Iowa's rail plan. She said gathering all the information and putting the plan together can be an expensive and arduous process.

"But we deem it as an important process because we want to make sure that our railroads are eligible for any type of federal funding that would require it be identified, as well as any other entity that might be applying that would be eligible for those funds." Nebraska's rail plan - or lack thereof - has not affected Iowa, Martin said. It could potentially if Iowa had a project that spilled across the state border and the FRA needed to see it in a Nebraska Rail Plan, she said.

Another group that would like to see Nebraska update its plan are the regional and short line railroads, which are freight carriers, but much smaller than the Omaha-based Union Pacific or Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF, for example. Those two companies are the biggest private freight companies in the U.S. and, according to the 2003 rail plan, account for 77% of Nebraska's rail line.

For those smaller freight carriers, the companies are specifically asked by the FRA if their proposed project is in a state rail plan, according to Chuck Baker, the president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. A short line or regional rail project being listed in a rail plan is not a requirement, but it appears it's favorable in the eyes of FRA, Baker said.

"That's because being in a state rail plan is indicative that people in the state have thought about this, there's been community engagement, it fits in with some sort of broader state transportation plan and it's supported," Baker said. "The federal government, it sometimes feels like they have unlimited money, but I swear it's not actually unlimited. So they like to spend it in a way that it's not going to be wasted."

Transportation for America is a coalition seeking to align our national, state, and local transportation policies with an array of issues like economic opportunity, climate change, energy security, health, housing and community development. N.A.R.P. is a member of this coalition.

ProRail Nebraska advocates safe, environmentally-friendly, fuel efficient, affordable, comfortable, and all-weather mobility that rail transportation can provide.


We think trains need more prominence in the U.S. because:

  • Trains provide more mobility and travel choices, especially in the post-2001 travel environment.
  • A wisely developed train network has great potential to accommodate future travel demand.
  • Trains are energy-efficient -- Intercity (Amtrak) trains are far more efficient than airlines (2441 Btu's per passenger-mile vs. 3999 for airlines in 1998, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory).
  • Increased use of trains reduces America's dependence on foreign oil.
  • Trains are safe, especially in bad weather.
  • Trains contribute to development which is more compact and less wasteful than auto-oriented development.
  • Trains pollute less than other modes of transportation.

(above courtesy Rail Passenger Association)




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  Updated 05/15/2023