Ohio’s Senate OKs a transportation budget with rail safety rules

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio senators reacting to the East Palestine train derailment proposed state oversight of wayside detectors that can spot railway defects, among other safety provisions, in a nearly $13.5 billion transportation budget that passed Thursday with bipartisan support.

Smoke rises from burning train cars near East Palestine, Ohio.
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. [Gene J. Puskar | AP Photo, File]
The proposal will now go to a joint House and Senate conference committee to work out differences, with just one week to go before lawmakers must send the spending plan to the governor.

The proposed transportation budget would fund pavement, bridges and other highway projects over two years. The Senate made some significant changes to the House version of the budget, including nixing a $1 billion fund aimed specifically at improving rural highways, and getting rid of lower registration fees for plug-in hybrid owners.

But the Senate kept the House’s railway safety measures, added to the budget after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in a fiery crash in the small eastern Ohio village.

Those include a provision to mandate a two-person crew for freight trains; require personnel who receive messages on defects picked up by a railroad’s wayside detector system immediately notify a train operator; and require the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to submit written reports to the Legislature regarding the transportation of hazardous materials and waste.

Senators added more rail-related safety items, including requiring wayside detectors to be installed 10 to 15 miles apart, with oversight from the Ohio Department of Transportation and PUCO. Currently, the Federal Railroad Association allows some wayside detectors to be spaced up to 25 miles apart.

The PUCO also would have to examine different kinds of railway detectors and cameras and submit its findings to the General Assembly.

Whether the Legislature is allowed to impose these provisions on the rail industry at all has been a matter of debate.

The Ohio Railroad Association has argued that several of the measures are preempted by federal law. State lawmakers have disagreed, saying the General Assembly can put statewide safeguards in place to help protect its constituents.

Sen. President Matt Huffman said the Legislature has worked with legal experts and believes the provisions are not preempted, but if challenges arise it could be up to the federal courts to decide.


Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.