During the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes, hundreds of millions of households across the country are understandably anxious about getting the food and medical supplies they need. Fortunately, even products such as paper towels and sanitary wipes that appeared to be in “shortage” for the past couple of weeks are making a comeback on the shelves thanks to a resilient supply chain that keeps goods moving from factories to supermarkets and convenience stores. Agencies such as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) can, and must, continue to relax unnecessary regulatory requirements that keep goods from getting to consumers. Keeping onerous rules on the books will only increase shipping costs and derail attempts to provide affordable products to consumers.
Amid all the chaos and loss of life caused by the coronavirus crisis, there are plenty of heartwarming stories about workers and entrepreneurs giving their all to help their fellow Americans. Spurred by the soaring demand for toilet paper, entrepreneur Marc Cooper decided to pour his life savings into starting a paper goods factory in Bangor, Maine. He even launched an online toilet paper subscription service via his startup Tissue Plus. But these pivotal products wouldn’t get off factory floors were it not for America’s vibrant transportation system, which includes railroad workers who are laboring tirelessly throughout the pandemic.
Carrying goods ranging from paper products to foodstuffs to automotive parts, railroads hauled more than 2 billion tons of freight annually to manufacturing plants and stores across the country even before the pandemic started. Trains are a quick and cost-effective way of transporting goods cross-continent, and their value has increased exponentially as rest stop closures, highway checkpoints, and driver fatigue have created new challenges for trucking. Over the past few years, railroads such as Norfolk Southern Railway have even experimented with short-haul routes less than 1,000 miles. These short-distance sprints have become increasingly critical as businesses – distilleries dabbling in developing hand sanitizer come to mind – produce necessities to relieve shortages in their areas.
But transportation companies nationwide are facing the continued prospect of strict state and federal regulations as they try to quickly get goods to consumers. For example, the Transportation Security Administration will impose onerous compliance regulations on train operators in June despite little evidence of pressing national security threats to railroads. Every dollar spent on obtaining special federal permits and complying with TSA rules is a dollar that could have been used to help deliver supplies to struggling households and businesses. Fortunately, the FRA is demonstrating its willingness to temporary relax strict rules on trains.
On March 25, the FRA granted regulatory relief from a slew of safety tests and required inspections contingent on worker shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Railroads are temporarily exempt from ordinary regulations as long as they “document the basis on which they concluded that availing themselves of the relief was necessary.” This regulatory relief is undoubtably a step in the right direction and demonstrates a willingness on the part of the FRA to keep critical goods flowing to businesses and households.
The agency should, however, proactively study ways to reduce red tape even more and further bolster the supply chain during (and after) the pandemic. The FRA should also work with other agencies such as the TSA to keep compliance costs as low as possible throughout America’s transportation systems.
This crisis isn’t easy on anyone with consumers nationwide wondering when the next shipments of food and toilet paper will hit the shelves. With continued regulatory relief, the federal government can ensure that the supply chain keeps chugging along for beleaguered businesses and households.
Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.