News & Reviews News Wire U.S. solicitor general says federal law preempts state regulation of grade crossings

U.S. solicitor general says federal law preempts state regulation of grade crossings

By David Lassen | November 28, 2023

Filing was requested by Supreme Court as it considers whether to accept appeal of Ohio blocked-crossing decision

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Cars and train at grade crossing with gates down and flashing lights
Cars stop at a grade crossing in Delray Beach, Fla., as a Brightline train passes. A filing by the U.S. Solicitor General says state efforts to regulate blocked grade crossings are superceded by federal law. David Lassen

WASHINGTON — Federal regulation of railroads preempts state laws regarding regulation of grade crossings, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar has told the U.S. Supreme Court in a filing on behalf of the federal government.

The filing, reported by WXIX-TV, came as the court considers whether to hear Ohio’s appeal of case regarding the ability of states to regulate blocked grade crossings.

The Supreme Court had asked the Solicitor General to explain the federal government’s view of the question in March [see “Supreme Court asks federal government for opinion …,” Trains News Wire, March 21, 2023]. Prelogar’s filing supports a 2022 decision by Ohio’s Supreme Court that overturned a state law, under which CSX Transportation had been cited numerous times for blocking a grade crossing while serving a Honda plant in Marysville, Ohio [see “Ohio Supreme Court strikes down …,” News Wire, Aug 18, 2022]. Lower courts have long held that state and local laws regarding blocked crossings are preempted by federal laws regulating matters of interstate commerce.

But Ohio’s Attorney General, Dave Yost, has asked the federal court to overturn the state court’s decision on public-safety grounds, and 19 other state attorneys general have filed an amicus brief asking for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal and clarify if Congress had indeed granted the Surface Transportation Board sole jurisdiction over matters regulating crossings [see “Kansas attorney general joins group asking Supreme Court to review …,” News Wire, Dec. 23, 2022] The amicus brief, available here, contends rulings have misinterpreted the law, saying it established jurisdiction over rates and practices but is silent on matters of safety.

Prelogar’s filing, however, urges the court not to take the case, including in its arguments that “Congress’s desire for national uniformity has remained steadfast even as its regulatory goals have evolved” and that the Ohio law “unreasonably burden[s] interstate commerce.” It also argues that “Congress’s choice to provide funding to eliminate grade crossings rather than to specify its own blocked-crossing rule is consistent with its duel focus on deregulation and national uniformity.”

WXIX also notes that an amicus brief has been filed by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division; Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; and Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys in support of Ohio’s request for a review of the state court decision. The labor groups’ filing argues that unless the lower court decision is overturned, states and the Federal Railroad Administration would be unable to regulate matters of railroad safety.

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