Ohio senators propose new railroad safety measures, reject plan to spend $1 billion on rural highways in transportation budget

COLUMBUS — An Ohio Senate committee on Wednesday added new rail safety measures to the state’s two-year transportation budget bill, including a requirement that wayside detectors must generally be installed at regular intervals along railroad tracks.

The Senate Transportation Committee also, among other changes, removed language proposed in the Ohio House to use $1 billion for rural highways and added a proposal to raise the speed limit for many two-lane state highways.

The revised bill also removes a number of House-added provisions that would, among other things, ban some local traffic camera programs, slash registration fees for plug-in hybrid vehicles, open the door to the city of Cincinnati selling the nation’s only municipally owned railroad, and allow Ohioans to use enhanced driver’s licenses and ID cards to enter Canada, Mexico, or Caribbean countries without needing a passport.

The committee is expected to make further changes to the proposed $11.6 billion budget before the full Senate votes on a final version on Thursday, according to the committee’s chair, Republican state Sen. Stephanie Kunze of suburban Columbus.

If the House disagrees with the Senate’s changes, a conference committee of representatives and senators would be created to hash out a final compromise bill to send to Gov. Mike DeWine. The budget must pass by the end of March.

Here’s more on what’s in the latest version of the budget bill:

Rail safety measures

The proposed wayside detector rule is one of a number of rail safety reforms that state lawmakers have brought forward following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. The wreck spilled large amounts of toxic chemicals, and federal and state officials, fearing some of the chemical tanks would explode, set them afire, creating a massive plume of thick black smoke. Other chemicals got into local streams, killing fish and traveling down into the Ohio River.

Under a substitute bill adopted by the Senate Transportation Committee, railroads would have to install wayside detectors along every 10-15 miles of track in Ohio. Wayside detectors use cameras and sensors to catch malfunctioning or broken equipment on passing trains before accidents happen. Anyone who receives a message regarding a wayside detector defect would have to immediately notify the operator of a train passing along it.

The revised bill would also have the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio examine best practices for hotbox and hot bearing detectors, acoustic bearing detectors and cameras installed on or near railroad tracks, each of which can provide early warning of a possible train derailment. The PUCO would report its findings to the Ohio General Assembly.

“(Senators) felt like if we can add a provision that would ensure high-speed trains have a little bit more warning, that maybe we can help ward off some of the tragedy that happened in…East Palestine,” Kunze said.

Senators kept a House proposal to require state regulators to ensure that wayside detector systems are running, up-to-date and installed at regular points along rail lines.

The committee also kept a number of other House-added rail safety measures in the bill, including a proposed requirement for all trains in Ohio to have a crew of at least two people.

That rule, if passed, would disappear if the federal government adopts a similar requirement, as the Biden Administration is currently seeking. Bipartisan federal legislation introduced by Ohio’s U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown and JD Vance, also would require two-person crews.

A two-person crew requirement, which a handful of other states have already adopted, would help railroad labor unions.

Rural highway money removed

Senators removed a House proposal to earmark $1 billion for rural highway projects. The program would be paid for out of a pot of money that Ohio has thanks to better-than-anticipated state tax revenue in the past. Gov. Mike DeWine, in his budget plan, proposed using the money instead to expand the state’s Medicaid emergency fund by up to $3 billion.

Kunze said the proposed funding was stripped out because senators and their staff, upon reading the wording of the measure, found it would only apply to about a dozen projects in Ohio. The House’s wording only allows the money to be used to improve state highways or federal non-Interstate highways in the 80 counties of the state that don’t have a city with a population of more than 65,000 people.

House Finance Committee Chair Jay Edwards, an Athens County Republican, previously said the rural highway plan is being pushed by House Speaker Jason Stephens, who is from sparsely populated Lawrence County in far southern Ohio.

Speed limit increase

The revised bill would raise the maximum speed limit from 55 mph to 60 mph for all two-lane state routes outside of cities and villages. That change would apply to highways not just in rural areas of the state, but in many suburban areas as well.

In addition, under the bill, cities or townships could ask the Ohio Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit to 65 mph for state routes with a current speed limit of 60 mph. The ODOT director could grant such requests if an engineering study determines that such an increase would be safe.

Traffic-camera ban

Ohio already has a law reducing state funding to cities that have traffic-camera programs to issue tickets for speeding and running red lights. The House’s version of the transportation budget bill would go beyond that by forbidding townships and counties from having camera programs.

However, the Senate Transportation Committee removed the House’s language.

Right now, no counties have such programs, according to the County Commissioners Association of Ohio. At least one township – Liberty Township in Trumbull County – operates traffic cameras; that township got $9.4 million in revenue from fines last year, according to WJW-TV.

Hybrid vehicle fees

Senators also took out House-added language seeking to cut state registration fees for plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Right now, hybrid vehicles that run on a rechargeable battery pack as well as a gas-powered engine have to pay the same $200-per-year state registration fee charged to owners of all-electric vehicles.

HB23 would reduce the registration fee for plug-in vehicles to $100 per year, on the grounds that owners shouldn’t have to pay both the full electric vehicle fee and a state tax on gasoline, according to state Rep. Casey Weinstein, a Hudson Democrat behind the proposal.

Enhanced driver’s licenses

Senate committee members removed a House-authored measure to direct the DeWine administration to enter an agreement with the federal government to allow Ohioans to use enhanced driver’s licenses and ID cards to enter Canada, Mexico, or Caribbean countries without needing a passport.

Enhanced driver’s licenses, unlike regular licenses, contain a radio-frequency identification chip that border patrol agents can use to see the owner’s facial image, gender, date of birth and citizenship status.

Several other states, including Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington, already issue enhanced licenses.

Ohio lawmakers deliberated in 2014 over allowing the state to issue “enhanced” driver’s licenses. At the time, supporters said it would make traveling to Canada or Mexico cheaper and more convenient. However, civil libertarians worried that radio chips inside the licenses could allow the government to track drivers’ locations and make Ohioans vulnerable to identity theft.

Amtrak expansion

Senators kept language added by the House giving Amtrak the statutory authority to expand service in Ohio.

DeWine announced last month that his administration will apply for federal money to study the feasibility of expanding Amtrak service in Ohio for the first time in decades. The grant money comes from $66 billion in additional money for rail service passed by Congress as part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The acceptance, DeWine said at the time, marks the “first step” toward possibly adding new Amtrak along existing lines in Cleveland and Cincinnati, as well as potentially creating an entirely new route connecting those cities with Columbus, Dayton and other cities in between.