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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Reaching Out for Information

Lynn Sutcliffe was troubled. The former Princeton football player and present counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, wondered who was going to represent users and passengers during the planning process to reorganize rail services in the midwest and northeast regions of the United States.

Backed by subcommittee chairman Vance Hartke, Democrat from Indiana, he successfully drafted a provision in the Regional Rail Organization Act of 1973 to provide these users and passengers with public counsel under the Interestate Commerce Commission’s (ICC) new Rail Services Planning Office.

In less than three months the foresight of this idea has been proven. There are now about 30 lawyers (4 staff and 26 on retainers) with a demonstrated capacity to represent broader public interests who are reaching out to locate, inform and help numerous groups and individuals participate in the shaping of this massive reorganization of rail services. These ICC lawyers are called “outreach attorneys,” and their region of operation to involve the public in developing a user-oriented rail system stretches from Chicago to Maine down to the Mason-Dixon line.

Working under ICC’s public counsel, A. Gray Staples, with a one-time $5,000,000 budget, these outreach attorneys have been meeting with farmers, grain elevator operators, small business shippers, state transportation offices, mayors, passengers, environmental and consumer groups, student public interest research groups, congressmen and Chambers of Commerce. They inform these groups of the details of the new law and the railroad system plan which the new United States Railway Association must present to Congress within a year. These citizens and small businessmen are informed of their rights to participate in this planning process and invited to submit their comments at public hearings.

Seventeen public hearings were held in March at cities throughout the region where testimony and materials were presented by users, consumers and other people affected by the new law’s attempt to replace bankrupt railroads with an efficient, service-sensitive railway system.

The issues raised are important to many public as well as private interests. What freight and passenger services should be expanded or diminished? What degree of competition should be promoted in the region’s transportation services? What are the rights of passengers and shippers to have a continuous voice in the running of the reorganized rail system and to have their specific grievances heard and resolved? What about labor’s place?

By May 2nd, the outreach attorneys on the staff of the ICC’s Rail Services Planning Office (Washington, D.C.) will submit a report to the United States Railway Association. Further public hearings will be held later this year after the Association issues its preliminary railway system plan. By that time the outreach attorneys will have helped a diverse constituency counterbalance the well-organized railroad lobbies in Washington.

Robert Stein, a consultant to the ICC’s attorneys group, wants to see this idea extended to other government agencies. To reach out and help citizens and other unorganized but important groups exercise their rights is something new in Washington. And something that could make these regulatory agencies, surrounded as they are by special interests and their influential lawyers, more responsive to and more informed by the people out there that they ignore or forget.

State government agencies could also benefit from studying the workings of the ICC’s outreach program. For they need similar efforts to actively inform and involve people in policy making. It’s called self-government for those who can’t remember the principle for the bureaucracy.