Virginia’s legislature wants to cap crossing fees and speed up the review process, but railroad companies say current practices protect safety.
Fiber deployments that need to cross railroad rights of way sometimes get mired in bureaucratic delays and onerous fees that can impact the financial viability of deployment, some states say.
The long-standing issue goes back many years and in 2018 prompted NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association to file comments with the Federal Communications Commission in which it accused railroad companies of acting as “gatekeepers” to right-of-way access, a position NTCA urged the FCC to revoke so more people could benefit from broadband.
The issue has cropped up over the years in several states as they roll out broadband infrastructure, although only a few—including Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin—have looked to manage disputes with railroads through legislation. Now it is on the radar of lawmakers in Virginia as the state looks to its electric co-operatives to connect the 200,000 residents that still lack broadband.
Bills introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates and Virginia Senate during this year’s legislative session aim to standardize the process and associated fees for broadband providers crossing railroads.
Both pieces of legislation, which have received the backing of the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives (VMDABC), would establish a uniform 30-day review period for notices that broadband companies submit for railroad crossings and give the State Corporation Commission the authority to adjudicate disagreements.
The Senate version would cap fees at $750 per railroad crossing, while the House version would standardize crossing fees at $1,500 per crossing. VMDABC officials said they have previously encountered fees of up to $20,000 per railroad crossing and review periods of 18 months or more. They said the standard fees would ensure transparency and prevent cost overruns.
The quicker timeline would help broadband providers avoid running up against deployment deadlines as set by the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, which requires projects to be completed within three years to be eligible for state funding.
In an email, a VMDABC spokesperson said the bills would “protect taxpayer money, allow for the quick deployment of broadband, and keep the process fair.” The spokesperson said the legislation is “crucial” to the group’s efforts to help connect Virginians to broadband internet.
Del. Chris Head, the lead sponsor on the House version, said in an email the legislation “will remove the unnecessary roadblocks of an inadequate and bureaucratic system and will cut exorbitant fees, safeguarding our taxpayers and ensuring Virginia remains a leader in closing the digital divide and that no Virginian is left without access to all the good that broadband enables.”
For their part, railroad companies say their review and fee processes are in place to ensure the safety of their customers and operators, adding that negotiations with broadband companies and others wishing to access their right-of-way should stay private.
In a fact sheet, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) said they do not seek “excessive compensation,” adding that legislation like that under consideration in Virginia would mean railroads “will be essentially forced to underwrite broadband deployment.”
An AAR spokesperson said in an email railroads are “reliable partners for entities seeking access to their infrastructure and recognize that broadband deployment is a priority for communities.” There are “reasonable and established procedures in place,” the spokesperson said, adding that safety “underpins all actions in this area.”
The Senate version of the Virginia bill passed the Commerce and Labor Committee this week, sending it to the floor of that chamber for a vote on final passage. The House version has yet to be considered.