Boxer fails in attempt to block rail safety delay

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., meets with reporters in her Capitol Hill office in June.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., meets with reporters in her Capitol Hill office in June. McClatchy

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had pointedly stated in recent weeks that a three-year delay for a rail safety system had to be paired with a long-term transportation bill.

But ultimately, the seasoned legislator had few options block the approval of an extension for positive train control, a collision-avoidance system Congress required in 2008.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved the measure by a voice vote after the House of Representatives did the same on Tuesday. Railroads hauling passengers and certain hazardous materials now have until Dec. 31, 2018, to implement the system.

Boxer did, however, achieve a related goal: Securing confirmation of Sarah Feinberg as chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency tasked with enforcing positive train control.

In another voice vote Wednesday, the Senate also confirmed Feinberg, who had been acting chief of the rail agency since January. Her nine-month wait for confirmation was longer than that of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whose nomination was held up for five and a half months last year.

Boxer had been vocal in her opposition to attaching the rail safety delay to a three-week extension of the federal highway trust fund.

But without passage of that patch, federal payments to the states could have stopped on Friday. And without getting three more years to install positive train control, railroads had announced their intention to stop running trains, in some cases as early as Dec. 1.

Boxer tried one last maneuver on Wednesday, asking her colleagues to accept a one-year delay on positive train control.

A long-term transportation bill that House and Senate negotiators are expected to hammer out by Thanksgiving would have given railroads the full three-year extension they wanted, and Boxer said that was the approach she preferred.

She had called the three-year extension on a three-week bill a “special-interest earmark” and said it set a bad precedent.

But ultimately, she did not object.

“I want to express my disappointment that I was unable to shorten the delay of the positive train control safety mandate on railroads,” she said in a statement Wednesday.

However, she praised the work of “a strong team of senators” who pushed for a confirmation vote on Feinberg, whose agency enforces safety rules on railroads.

“If we care about safety, we need to have someone leading the agency,” Boxer said, “and Sarah Feinberg is passionate about safety.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis