Sarah Yurasko – American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association
When California approved the nation’s first rules limiting railroad pollution in April, Sarah Yurasko took notice. However well-intentioned the goal, she deemed its strategy of aggressively cutting greenhouse emissions to be misguided. Not only could it derail or at least seriously obstruct an industry essential to transport of cargo and passengers over modest distances, she argued it seemed an overstretch of state law.
As a senior vice president and general counsel of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, Yurasko partnered with the trade group Association of American Railroads, enlisted outside counsel in the Golden State, and they filed for a preliminary injunction in federal court. The California Air Resources Board, which enforces the law, responded by allowing an additional 15-day comment period, afterward saying the rule was final but then backtracking. The issue still unresolved as of August, Yurasko and AAR have paused the preliminary injunction, waiting for the state administrative process to play out.
“Our main argument is that California doesn’t have the authority to do this,” Yurasko tells Vanguard from ASLRRA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “There are comprehensive federal laws that regulate railroad operations. This action is clearly preempted by Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, the Clean Air Act and the Locomotive Inspection Act.”
Should CARB’s rules stand, locomotive engines more than 23 years old would be banned by 2030. Zero-emissions technology would move freight from ports and throughout trainyards. Locomotives couldn’t idle for more than 30 minutes if equipped with automatic shutoff.
To all of which, Yurasko flashes the red signal on behalf of the nonprofit trade association that represents nearly 600 short-line and regional railroad companies throughout North America. What vital links they are in the national supply chain, she says, noting these companies often provide the beginning and ending connection to freight trains that connect producers with consumers.
It’s a fascinating industry, Yurasko says about the railroads. Though the operations come in multiple classes of size and revenue, all are interconnected and creating hardships for any—in this case, the Class III’s with, on average, fewer than 30 employees and less than 80 miles of track—could affect all.
Unlike the larger railroad classes, the short lines often don’t have the resources to readily assume often substantial costs to comply with new rules. Thus, they need an advocate, with Yurasko assuming that role in addition to her others as ASLRRA’s sole in-house attorney.
“Conceptually we agree with the spirit of moving to clean energy and reducing emissions, but as we’ve told California, their new law isn’t feasible for small businesses,” she says. “This could put many of them out of business.”
As could other regulatory and legislative trends, Yurasko goes on to say. Whereas crew sizes have traditionally been covered by collective bargaining, in 2022 the Federal Railroad Administration proposed, with few exceptions, minimum staffing standards of two persons in a locomotive cab.
Modest as that proposal seems, Yurasko says it could devastate some of the smaller operations that typically have just one person in the cab while another might follow the train in a pickup truck. In addition to drafting a lengthy response, she’s taken her concerns to the Small Business Administration, which in December hosted roundtable discussions between industry reps and regulators.
Like the zero-emissions issue in California, this too remains unresolved, with the DOT expected to publish its findings in early 2024. But while the FRA has said that just seven shortliners operate with one person in the cab, Yurasko says the number is closer to 400.
She’s ever ready to file amicus briefs on behalf of her association’s membership and has created the framework. How beneficial she says it is when a party not directly involved in an issue can aid the cause with details for a court to consider.
“I want for us to be very targeted and mindful when we jump into a case,” Yurasko says. “Rail is a very interconnected system and we need to provide a deeper context of the big picture. It (amicus task force) has been very helpful for us to provide insight on a national perspective.”
It’s all part of her role as the legal conductor of this segment of the railroad industry’s interests, something Yurasko has been doing since January 2020 and essentially preparing to do so since she was a student at American University Washington College of Law during the early and mid-2000s.
Initially she was drawn to international law but, as she says, an advantage of pursuing education in the nation’s capital is the variety of federal internships. Upon serving one with the DOT, she was hooked.
“Everyone in the country benefits from transportation,” she says. “I wanted to be part of it.”
But which part remained to be determined. The Federal Aviation Administration held attraction, but wasn’t hiring when Yurasko passed the bar in 2005. A DOT coordinator circulated her resume, and the FRA—the agency she now sometimes clashes with—took her aboard as a trial attorney. She stayed there from 2005 to 2011, then opted for a role with Amtrak for over a year. Afterward came seven-plus years in two roles with the Association of American Railroads, which represents major freight carriers along with Amtrak and some regional commuter operations, and then to ASLRRA.
“I truly believe we’re stronger when all the railroads work together and we do,” she says. “It’s very collaborative as the issues affect all of us.”
While her advocacy might be the most conspicuous of Yurasko’s roles, there’s also contract review, personnel issues, compliance and her responsibility as corporate secretary. As the sole lawyer and with limited resources for outside counsel, she’s had to accustom herself to triaging and with so many matters affecting the short-line and regional railroads, that can take some doing.
Yet she perseveres and not just through her legal training and railroad industry savvy. Something else helps keep her even temperament on track.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been hostile or short with anyone professionally,” she says. “I’ve got five kids between the ages of 3 and 15 and, because of them, have more patience than anyone in a given room. I don’t let emotion or strong feelings affect my performance.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Fall I 2023 Edition here.
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