Broadband providers, railroads clash on crossing legislation

Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 7:10 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WDBJ) - A dispute between broadband providers and railroads in Virginia is playing out in the General Assembly. And how it’s resolved could have an impact on thousands of people who are waiting for high speed internet.

At issue is how long it takes and how much it costs for broadband providers to cross rail lines when they are extending service to new customers.

The companies delivering high-speed internet say the railroads have become a roadblock, at a time when the state is devoting a billion dollars to universal broadband.

Railroad representatives say they support the extension of broadband, but argue there are other important issues including public safety and private property rights.

Consider one neighborhood in Nelson County where Firefly, the fiber broadband affiliate of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, was extending service.

“But the last hundred feet to connect the neighborhood wasn’t installed and we missed the whole semester of those students being able to access the internet,” said CVEC President and CEO Gary Wood. “That’s replayed over and over again if we don’t get this bill passed and have realistic time frames and realistic costs.”

Wood testified during a recent meeting of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. And so did more than a dozen representatives of other organizations involved in the push to extend broadband service.

They were supporting legislation introduced by Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin Co.) that would allow broadband providers to cross rail lines, while setting time limits and fees.

“There are children out there that aren’t getting access to information that children in northern Virginia take for granted,” Stanley said. “And we committed as a General Assembly to say we’re going to get this done, we’re going to get it done in three years, and we’ve expended huge amounts of resources, a billion dollars of taxpayer money to get this done.”

Representatives of CSX and Norfolk Southern, and other supporters of the railroads spoke against the bill.

“I assure you the railroads want to be a partner in this effort, not to be an impediment,” said Alex Saar, with CSX Transportation. “But these installations must be properly coordinated and reviewed by the railroads to ensure the safety of railroad operations and to protect CSXT’s employees and the general public.”

“We at Norfolk Southern completed 166 pipe and wire crossing agreements last year alone,” said Tim Bentley. “We have a process that works. We are happy to work with stakeholders to identify where they want to cross, to pre-approve insurance, to negotiate fees. We have an entire process that works and we just welcome that ongoing dialogue.”

Senator Stanley’s bill and a similar measure introduced by Del. Chris Head (R-Botetourt Co.) cleared their committees this week. Both should be up for votes in their respective chambers next week.