May 15, 2003

SPRINGFIELD (May 20)–The Illinois House of Representatives voted 115-0 today to keep using the state’s grade-crossing-protection fund to pay for the Illinois Commerce Commission’s railroad-safety program.

The Senate passed the same measure April 3 by a vote of 58-0. Gov. Rod Blagojevich is expected to sign the bill shortly.

But the new legislation, known as Senate Bill 392, represents a compromise.

“For the past five years the Commerce Commission’s safety-inspection program has been paid for out of the state’s grade-crossing protection fund,” said “UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

But that funding arrangement was due to sunset June 30, Szabo said, because the 1998 legislation that established it covered a term of five years. The UTU sought new legislation making the original funding arrangement permanent, but the railroad industry objected to what it saw as long-term diversion of grade-crossing protection funds to the safety program.

“If the sunset date had been reached without new legislation being passed, funding for enforcement of the state’s railroad-safety code would have lapsed,” Szabo said.

“The Commerce Commission would have had to lay off its inspectors, and railroad employees would have been subject to assignment in uninspected and possibly unsafe workplaces,” he said.

“That is not acceptable to the UTU,” Szabo said, “which is why our union worked to insure continuance of the program.”

Szabo said that in addition to keeping the safety-inspection program going, the one-year extension crafted by Sen. Larry Woolard (D-Carterville) will give the state’s auditor-general time to complete a study of the program’s costs while allowing Gov. Blagojevich to evaluate all of the state’s rail programs and develop his own priorities and his own strategies for implementing them.

“We are confident that the audit ultimately will enable the governor to continue the rail-inspection program with adequate funding under an appropriate administrative format,” Szabo said. “UTU members, like all rail employees, must be assured that state government has the the tools to hold railroad management accountable for maintaining a safe workplace.”