March 7, 2003

SPRINGFIELD (March 7)–A bill to continue the Illinois Commerce Commission’s railroad inspection and safety-enforcement program was approved unanimously today by the Senate Revenue Committee. The measure now moves to the Senate floor for a vote.

However, Senate Bill 392 won approval only after its sponsor, Sen. Larry Woolard (D-Carterville) offered a compromise that extended funding for the program for a one-year period rather than indefinitely. Previously, the state’s safety program had been funded for a five year period through transfer of funding from the state’s Grade Crossing Protection Fund.

“Keeping the state’s safety-inspection program going was a high priority for the UTU, as well as for the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees [AFSCME] who represent the ICC inspectors” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “If Sen. Woolard had not compromised on a temporary one-year continuation, funding for the inspection program would have ended at the close of the Fiscal Year on June 30. Inspectors would have been laid off and rail operating employees would have had no one to turn to with charges of unsafe conditions in the rail industry.”

The union’s position, Szabo said, was that the inspection program should be made permanent. He said rail-industry representatives did not oppose safety inspection per se but did oppose continuation of its funding out of the state’s grade-crossing protection program.

“The industry would prefer that 100 per cent of the funds for upgrading grade crossings be applied to that purpose,” Szabo said. “They think any funding for safety inspection should come from the General Revenue Fund or other sources.

“But that’s not going to happen at a time when the General Revenue Fund is under severe strain because of the state’s $5-billion deficit,” Szabo said. “Likewise, historically the grade-crossing protection fund has been the source of funding for most state rail safety programs.”

Szabo added: “We knew that if the transfer was not continued, the state inspection program would die, and that’s not acceptable. We simply cannot let our members go out and work on a property that is not subject to enforcement of state rail safety codes.”

“The compromise allows the new administration in Springfield to review the state’s railroad policies and develop its own list of priorities and also allows time for the completion on an audit underway of the expenditures regarding the rail safety inspection program,” Szabo said.

“Some observers are advocating administrative changes, such as moving the rail-inspection program out of the Illinois Commerce Commission and into the Illinois Department of Transportation,” Szabo said. “A one-year hold on the program gives the Blagojevich administration time to take a good look at the numbers and find out whether a consolidation makes sense.

“It looks like the industry will support the current bill on the Senate floor as well as in the House,” Szabo said. “And I can assure you the UTU will do everything in its power to make sure the safety-inspection-and-enforcement is preserved irrespective of whether it is administered by IDOT or the Commerce Commission.”