"Finally, we have to change the name," McAllen said in his June 22, 2018 speech. "The current one is very misleading. The Railroad Commission of Texas has nothing to do with railroads. This would be like calling the Food and... Drug Administration the Department of Transportation. This is about basic transparency," he said.
McAllen, the 2018 Democratic nominee for a seat on the commission, faces the Republican incumbent, Christi Craddick, on the November 2018 ballot.
It’s widely known the commission regulates oil and gas drilling and production, well plugging and site remediation, pipeline safety and damage prevention, surface mining of coal and uranium, gas utility rates and alternative fuels.
Still, was McAllen right that the commission--steered by three elected members, each one having a six-year term--has nothing to do with railroads?
The commission says so on a web page titled "Who Regulates Railroads in Texas?" That page says the commission "no longer has any jurisdiction or authority over railroads."
Yet the agency started with a vigorous rail focus. In 1890, James Stephen Hogg won election as governor while calling for a constitutional amendment authorizing lawmakers to start a commission to bird-dog customer-gouging out-of-state railroad companies, according to a 1905 book compiling Hogg’s papers.
Hogg devoted 6,000 words of his April 1890 campaign kickoff speech to making the case for a commission to regulate rates and traffic on the state’s rail lines. His slogan: "Hogg and The Commission."
Hogg said in his speech: "The issue so sharply drawn in the present campaign is, shall corporate power or the State control? The fight is on and the issue is unmistakably presented." The law creating the commission took effect in June 1891.
In its infancy, the commission regulated in-state railroad rates including passenger fares, according to a commission web page titled "The 'Railroads' in the Railroad Commission."
"When the commission was founded in 1891, there were some 8,700 miles of track" in the state, the page says. "When the railroads reached their peak in Texas in 1930, there were 17,500 miles." But following World War II, goods increasingly "began to travel by truck and people by buses and cars and the miles of track began to shrink," the page says.
Meantime, oil and gas regulation proved paramount. In a 1981 book on the commission, David Prindle of the University of Texas said that a few years after the Spindletop oil well gushed in 1901--birthing the economy’s dominant oil sector--the commission landed responsibility for regulating oil and gas pipelines.
Prindle’s book calls the commission’s subsequent actions dealing with railroads "of only limited interest."
Changes in federal law later vested rail safety in a federal agency (1970) and left states with no guiding role in rail rate-setting (1980), the commission’s "railroads" web page says. In 2005, finally, legislators transferred remaining rail safety oversight to the Texas Department of Transportation, "leaving the commission with no regulatory authority related to any aspect of the rail industry," the agency says.
Name-change moves stall
McAllen is hardly the first person to say the agency’s name should reflect its revised duties. But promoters of a change failed to persuade the 2017 Legislature to act and previous efforts to swap in an energy-oriented name faltered in 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015, according to a 2016 news account.
That Austin American-Statesman news story quoted Rep. Tom Craddick, the Midland Republican and former House speaker representing the oil-rich Permian Basin region, in opposition. Craddick’s daughter, Christi Craddick, who seeks re-election against McAllen, said then that changing the name wasn’t her priority when it’d cost money needed for other needs--a position she reaffirmed in a statement emailed to us by an aide, Lauren Spreen.
McAllen said the railroad commission has nothing to do with railroads.
It did, for more than a century. But it hasn’t had a thing to do with railroads since late 2005.
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