Railroads challenge Virginia broadband law

Published: Jul. 6, 2023 at 7:20 PM EDT
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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WDBJ) - A legislative fight that pitted Virginia’s railroads against the state’s broadband providers is now in federal court.

A railroad industry group has filed a lawsuit challenging a new law that was designed to help internet companies extend fiber optic cables across rail lines.

The legislation was introduced by Del. Chris Head (R-Botetourt Co.) and Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin Co.).

“I’m not totally surprised by what Norfolk Southern and the other rail companies are doing here, only because they were so uncooperative during the General Assembly this past year,” Stanley told WDBJ7 in an interview Thursday.

Stanley said the problem the legislation was designed to address is the difficulty, time and expense broadband providers have faced in extending fiber optic cables across rail lines. He argued it’s an urgent issue, especially when state and federal grants have an expiration date.

Stanley said he tried to address the railroad’s concerns.

“We made sure that the process was fair, that they had an appellate process through the State Corporation Commission, that they got paid the actual amount that was required to make such a crossing and that their unions were involved,” Stanley said.

The Association of American Railroads declined an interview on the legal challenge it brought on behalf of the state’s rail companies.

But in the filing, attorneys argued the new law treats railroads unlike any other landowner, hobbles their ability to ensure safe operations, and disregards their right to just compensation for the taking of valuable property interests.

“This new statute,” the lawsuit said, “empowers a broadband service provider to dictate to the railroads when and how the provider will cross railroad land and at what minimal cost.”

The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court in Alexandria to declare the new law is void and unenforceable, and ultimately unconstitutional.

Stanley said he tried to make sure the bill is “bulletproof,” and said he believes it can survive a constitutional challenge.