Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Joseph Lagana, Gordon Johnson and Liz Muoio to improve oversight of New Jersey's railroad bridges was advanced by an Assembly panel on Thursday.
The legislation was designed to monitor the integrity of New Jersey's rail bridges after the federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 ceded authority for bridge inspection and oversight to the owners of the approximately 100,000 rail bridges around the nation.
"When railroads conduct bridge inspections and find safety issues, existing law does not require federal officials to be informed and they have little authority to compel rail bridge owners to make repairs," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "In light of the number of oil train derailments, spills, fires, and explosions, this bill will bring transparency and accountability to the inspection process to help ensure public safety."
"Federal regulations require that 'competent persons' evaluate bridges and develop bridge management plans for railroads, yet the regulations fail to require any minimum qualifications for competence - not even an engineering degree," said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). "It's clear that we need to institute greater oversight in this realm."
The bill (A-4592) would require railroad companies owning, leasing, or controlling the right-of-way for bridges in New Jersey to annually submit to the Commissioner of Transportation:
- a copy of any bridge inspection report completed pursuant to federal or state law in the preceding 12 months;
- the bridge inspection standards used to complete the inspection;
- a copy of the bridge management program adopted by the railroad pursuant to federal regulations; and
- a certification by a bridge engineer that the bridge is able to carry the loads that travel the bridge on a daily basis.
"Owners of bridges are essentially left to determine safe load limits, inspection and maintenance schedules, and engineering standards with little or no independent oversight," said Johnson (D-Bergen). "This isn't just nonsensical; it's downright dangerous and needs to be changed."
"Federal guidelines provide no minimum design standards for bridge construction or maintenance," said Muoio (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "Given the extraordinary increase in oil train accidents in recent years, improving the monitoring of our bridges is absolutely critical."
The sponsors noted that since 2008, oil train traffic has increased over 5,000 percent along rail routes leading from production fields in central Canada, the Great Plains, and the Rockies to refineries and crude oil hubs along our nation's coasts. There has also been a surge in the number of oil train derailments, spills, fires, and explosions. Nationally, more oil was spilled from trains in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined.
The bill was approved by the Assembly Transportation Committee and now awaits final legislative approval from the full Senate.