Railroad industry group claims new VA law shifts permitting power from railroads to ISPs

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) seeks to void a Virginia bill streamlining railroad crossing requests for broadband providers, claiming it shifts permitting power from the railroad owners to ISPs.

The law, which took effect on July 1, caps railroad crossing fees at $2,000 per each crossing and requires ISPs to reimburse railroad companies no more than $5,000 for expenses the railroads may incur. Also, railroads have 35 days to review a provider’s crossing request.

In a lawsuit filed at the end of June, AAR stated the new law “treats railroads unlike any other landowner, seizing from them and giving to broadband service providers a permanent easement to access and occupy railroad lands.”

AAR went on to say the law doesn’t authorize a railroad to reject a proposed crossings installation for failing to comply with railroad safety requirements. Virginia’s statute also “provides no mechanism” for how to relocate permanent crossings in case a railroad needs to upgrade its network, such as adding sidings to serve more customers.

Furthermore, AAR said the crossing caps and reimbursement fees would “apply equally to crossing a 6-foot-wide single-track right-of-way as it would to crossing CSXT’s Acca Yard in Richmond,” the latter consisting of approximately 36 tracks spanning roughly 80 acres.

Virginia state senator Bill Stanley, who introduced the bill earlier this year, said in a statement he isn’t surprised by AAR’s litigation, given “the railroads engaged in bullying our Virginia broadband companies that were seeking a fair and equitable solution to this problem during the 2023 legislative session.”

Stanley claimed Virginia railroad companies “are now doing everything that they can” to prevent economic revitalization and fiber buildouts in the Southwest and Southside regions of the state.

“I am confident that the broadband initiative we have created with this legislation will be found to be right, just, and more importantly, constitutional,” he added.

Other supporters of the bill include the Virginia, Maryland, the Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives (VMDABC) and the Virginia Association of Counties (VaCo). The latter has said crossing reviews often take months to complete, with fees totaling as much as $20,000 per crossing.

“This law tackles the inadequate and bureaucratic administrative system that is preventing us from connecting Virginians and the exorbitant fees that waste taxpayer money – a crossing simply should not take a year or more to complete,” stated VMDABC Chair Casey Logan.