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Grappling with Deregulation and Shared Facilities

Last summer, the long-running In re: Rail Freight Fuel Surcharge Antitrust Litigation 1 case took a detour through a rarely cited section of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 (“Staggers”)2 that excludes certain communications and agreements between competing rail lines from evidence in antitrust cases. In response to the parties’ briefing on the scope of the statute, the Court requested the Department of Justice’s views on the statute. Though the DOJ’s guidance was specifically focused on the statute at issue, the advice it contained is relevant for competitors in any industry that have legitimate reasons in certain contexts to communicate with competitors or agree on prices with competitors, even as they otherwise compete on prices with them in the market. In the Rail Freight Fuel Surcharge litigation, the legitimate communications involve interline pricing between rail carriers shipping freight across multiple rail networks. In other industries, for example, it can involve a vertically-integrated company providing logistical or back-office services to a customer-facing competitor with which they compete for retail customers, or other dual distribution circumstances.

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The Board Seeks Public Comment on New Approach for Considering Class Exemption and Revocation Issues

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) requested public comments on petitions for rulemaking backed by owner-operator/small-fleet groups to address the transparency of broker rates. The notice is in response to petitions filed by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (“OOIDA”) and the Small Business in Transportation Coalition (“SBTC,” and, together with OOIDA, the “Petitioners”).   

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Five Class I Railroads File Joint Petition for Rulemaking to Establish an Alternative Voluntary Arbitration Program for Small Rate Disputes

On July 31, 2020, five Class I railroads, Canadian National Railway Company (CN), CSX Transportation, Inc. (CSX), Norfolk Southern Corporation (NS), Union Pacific Railroad Company (UP), and the Kansas City Southern Railway Company (KCS) (collectively, Petitioners), submitted a joint petition requesting that the Surface Transportation Board (STB or Board) initiate a rulemaking proceeding to establish a new voluntary arbitration program for small rate disputes.  Joint Petition for Rulemaking to Establish an Alternative Voluntary Arbitration Program for Small Rate Disputes, Ex Parte 765 (filed July 31, 2020).

Petitioners stated that Congress had instructed the Board to develop “simplified and expedited methods for determining the reasonableness of challenged rates in those cases in which a full stand-alone cost presentation is too costly, given the value of the case.”  Id., slip op. at 1.  Over the last thirty years, “the Board has responded by creating multiple new simplified, and increasingly less precise, rate review methodologies.”  Id.  However, some stakeholders in the shipping community have continued to complain that the Board’s implied methodologies are insufficient in regard to flexibility, cost, and speed.  Id.

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UP, NS & CN File Joint Petition for Rulemaking to Modernize Annual Revenue Adequacy Determinations

On September 1, 2020, Petitioners Union Pacific Railroad Company (UP), Norfolk Southern Railway Company (NS), and the U.S. rail operating affiliates of Canadian National Railway Company (collectively, CN) filed a joint petition urging the Surface Transportation Board (STB or Board) to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to adopt rules that would revise and modernize annual revenue adequacy determinations under 49 U.S.C. § 10704(a).  Joint Petition for Rulemaking to Modernize Annual Revenue Adequacy Determinations, Ex Parte 766 (filed Sept. 1, 2020).

Petitioners stated that Congress charged the Board with annually measuring the financial health of the rail industry and assisting each railroad in achieving revenue adequacy, and the Board has committed itself to “evidence-based decision-making,” using tools that were designed three decades ago.  Id., slip op. at 1.  According to Petitioners, the Board currently relies on accounting measures of return on investment (ROI), rather than the current economic value of those investment assets, then removes billions of dollars of accumulated deferred taxes from that investment base, which adds yet another distortion, and analyzes these findings without considering evidence about typical rates of return for the companies with which railroads compete for capital.  Id., slip op. at 1-2.

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Ninth Circuit Rules that Oregon Tax Discriminated Against BNSF in Violation of 4-R Act

On July 8, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision affirming a district court ruling in favor of BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) regarding the railroad’s challenge to Oregon’s tax on intangible personal property as a discriminatory tax on railroads in violation of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (4-R Act).  BNSF Ry. Co. v. Or. Dep’t of Revenue, 965 F.3d 681 (9th Cir. 2020).

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The Board Issues a Final Rule in the Market Dominance Streamlined Approach Proceeding

The Board adopted a final rule establishing a streamlined approach for pleading market dominance in rate reasonableness proceedings.  Market Dominance Streamlined Approach, Ex Parte 756 (STB served Aug. 3, 2020).  This decision finalized a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) served in this proceeding on September 12, 2019.  The Board received comments from over 20 entities on the NPRM.  As explained below, the Board in the final rule adopted the NPRM proposals with minor modifications.

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The Board Withdraws Proposal to Revise its Methodology for Determining the Railroad Industry’s Cost of Capital

On June 23, the Board withdrew its proposal to revise its methodology for calculating the cost-of-equity component of the railroad industry’s cost of capital by incorporating a third model, based on comments and replies the Board received in response to the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM).  Revisions to the Board’s Methodology for Determining the R.R. Indus.’s Cost of Capital, Ex Parte 664 (Sub-No. 4) (STB served June 23, 2020). 

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The Board and the FRA Address COVID-19 Impacts

Both the Surface Transportation Board (STB or Board) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have taken certain steps to address impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Board announced that, starting on March 17, 2020, all filings and other submissions should be made electronically.  Until further notice, the Board will not be accepting paper filings or providing paper copies of any decisions or other materials.  STB Homepage, https://prod.stb.gov/.  The STB has also granted certain deadline extensions in proceedings where requested due to COVID-19 impacts.  E.g., Ass’n of Am. R.Rs.—Petition for Declaratory Order, FD 36369 (STB served March 19, 2020); Petition by the Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. (Amtrak) for Proceeding under 49 U.S.C. § 24903(c)(2), FD 36332 (STB served March 17, 2020). 

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