By Sen. John Thune
Last January, I was humbled to be selected by my colleagues to serve as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. What an honor it’s been. Over the last year-and-a-half, we’ve worked hard to make the American people’s priorities our priorities. Safer skies, improved railways, and bringing our interstate highway system further into the 21st century have all been on the agenda this Congress, and the Commerce Committee has a long list of accomplishments to show for it.
An effective and efficient transportation system is critical to South Dakota’s economy, especially to our agriculture producers, which means as chairman of the Commerce Committee, I’m in a unique position to ensure our state’s interests are given the national attention they deserve.
In 2013 and 2014, a historic rail service crisis hurt local crop prices, challenged crop storage capacity, and caused certain transportation premiums to rise by as much as 150 percent because agriculture producers and other shippers were unable to transport goods into and out of the state in a timely manner. In response, the Commerce Committee made several important first-of-their-kind reforms to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal regulatory agency responsible for economic oversight of America’s freight rail system.
My legislation, which was signed into law last year, will make the board more accountable to the people who depend on rail transportation and far more effective in addressing rail rate and service disputes. Implementation of these reforms is underway, and we have already begun to see improvements on the timeliness and responsiveness of the board.
The committee passed key provisions of the Senate’s multi-year highway bill that will provide long-term certainty to state and local governments across the country and increase investment in roads and bridges in South Dakota. In the committee, I drafted numerous highway bill provisions to cut regulatory red tape for agriculture shippers and create new investments in the freight rail system in our state, and I’m glad they were included in the final bill.
Aviation safety and security has been one of the committee’s top priorities. We spent months working on my legislation to reauthorize and reform the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which would help improve the travel experience for consumers, and make it safer and more secure too.
This legislation tightens the vetting process for airport workers who have access to secure areas, expands TSA PreCheck, and strengthens security at international airports with direct flights into the United States. These security reforms and consumer protections represent a common-sense approach and deserve to be enacted into law.
While our transportation system certainly makes it easier for us to get ourselves and other goods and services from one place to another, the distance between cities in rural America still presents its challenges, and health care delivery is key among them.
To help close that gap, the committee took up and passed my Rural Health Care Connectivity Act, which was just signed into law. My bill will make it easier and cheaper to access health care facilities and medical professionals in rural areas across the state without having to travel long distances to do so.
I’m proud of what our committee has accomplished in a relatively short period of time, and I’m eager to build on these early successes as we continue to fight for what’s important to South Dakotans and all Americans.