Proposed safety measures in response to the East Palestine train derailment are part of a $12.6 billion state transportation budget passed Wednesday by the Ohio House with bipartisan support.
The budget proposal would fund pavement, bridges and other highway projects over two years and includes $1 billion targeted for improvements to rural highways. It would also lower fees for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle owners.
Weeks after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in a fiery crash in the small eastern Ohio village, lawmakers included a provision to require that those who receive messages on defects picked up by a railroad's wayside detector system must immediately notify a train operator.
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The system detects mechanical issues such as overheated wheel bearings like the one noted in the East Palestine accident. The derailment led to a toxic chemical release, the evacuation of part of the town, a multi-government emergency response and ongoing concerns about contaminated drinking water and long-term health effects.
Other railway-related provisions in the budget include mandating a two-person crew for freight trains and requiring the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to submit written reports to the Legislature regarding the transportation of hazardous materials and waste.
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The Ohio Railroad Association has said in testimony that several of the provisions addressing rail safety are preempted by federal law. State lawmakers disagreed, saying the General Assembly can put statewide safeguards in place to help protect its constituents.
Speaker Jason Stephens, a southern Ohio Republican, said implementing the provisions made an important statement to all Ohioans about the Legislature's commitment to rail safety, especially those impacted by the derailment. How they will interact with federal law, he said, will ultimately lie with the courts and with the U.S. Congress.
Under another part of the budget proposal, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle owners would see lower annual registration fees, with costs decreasing from $200 to $100 starting in 2024.
House Finance Committee Chair Rep. Jay Edwards, a Nelsonville Republican, said lowering the fees was about fairness, as gas-powered vehicle owners pay around $180 in gas tax per year while plug-in hybrid owners pay around $65 annually on top of the current registration fee.
The budget now goes to the Senate for consideration.