COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed a nearly $13.5 billion state transportation budget Friday, touting new rail safety measures that were included in response to the February train derailment and toxic chemical spill in East Palestine.
The measure primarily funds bridges and highway projects over the next two years. It cleared the GOP-dominated Legislature with bipartisan support. It also lowers registration fees for plug-in hybrid vehicles, and raises the threshold for the amount of money a local government can spend on projects such as bridge repairs by its own public workforce before it must bid them out to private contractors.
The railway safety measures would mandate a two-person crew for freight trains and require that the wayside detectors used to help spot problems be installed in shorter intervals of 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 kilometers) apart, with oversight from the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, among other provisions. Currently, the Federal Railroad Administration allows some wayside detectors to be spaced up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) apart.
The PUCO also would have to examine different kinds of railway detectors and cameras that are in use and submit its findings to the General Assembly.
“We are ensuring that Ohio’s railroads follow the best practices in monitoring the railroad equipment and holding them responsible for their actions,” DeWine said.
Whether the state has the right to impose these provisions remains a point of debate. The Ohio Railroad Association, a trade group, argued that several of the measures are preempted by federal law. State lawmakers say the General Assembly can put statewide safeguards in place to help protect constituents.
DeWine said enacting those provisions puts Ohio on record as taking a firm stance on rail safety concerns the East Palestine derailment brought into focus. He said he hopes the federal government will also take steps to strengthen rail safety.
Congress is considering safety proposals that would require freight train crews to continue to have two people, require more hot bearing detectors to be installed, and ensure railroads notify states about the hazardous materials they are transporting, among other changes.
Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.