Joining forces for freight

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America’s freight transportation system is in dire need of increased and sustained investment. Without a strong commitment from Congress in the upcoming reauthorization cycle, productivity of all modes could deteriorate, which in turn will impact our country’s economic recovery and international competitiveness.” –Joni Casey, president and CEO, Intermodal Association of North America.

I attended an interesting press conference yesterday; interesting, from my perspective, as it gathered many erstwhile competitors in the world of freight transport, such as truckers and railroads for starters, and put them together at the same table united behind a single goal; retooling America’s freight policy for the future.

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The main worry of the Freight Stakeholders Coalition – a joint group made up of 17 different organizations representing truckers, railroads, ports, shippers, supply chain experts, even state department of transportation agencies – is that freight occupies the lower rungs of the ladder when it comes to Congressional and Presidential interest.

For a good example of this indifference, look no farther than the efforts to delay a vote on the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, commonly referred to as the “highway bill,” for nearly two years. The Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee approved by 18-1 an 18-month extension of federal highway programs from October of this year through March 2011; a policy President Obama’s administration strongly supports.

Yet such an extreme delay is drawing fire from all corners many fear such temporizing may only worsen transportation infrastructure issues. And it is such temporizing over transportation and freight issues, said Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, must change and change fast.

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“Freight is an issue that should be at the top of the nation’s priority list – but it is not,” she stressed during her turn at the podium. “No matter the differences among industries as to what needs the most funding, we all recognize 18 months is too long to wait to pass a reauthorization bill. What do we need more time for? There’s enough information out there about what we need to do to fill this room 10 times over.”

She pointed out that not one but two bipartisan Congressional commissions put together a rough outline of the funding and policy steps needed to be taken to establish an effective freight strategy for the U.S. – and if the right policy directions are taken, some tax increases and extra user fees could find broad support among business and transportation groups, Kavinoky said.

“We need a sustainable [transportation] infrastructure program, building better connections between all of our transportation modes, or the productivity of our nation is eventually going to suffer – thwarted by bottlenecks and congestion,” she explained.

The Freight Stakeholders Coalition backs a detailed 10-point plan they released back in May to help make this strategic freight vision become a reality in the U.S. – though it is not for the faint of heart:

1. Mandate the development of a National Multimodal Freight Strategic Plan. The surface transportation authorization bill should mandate the development of a National Multimodal Freight Strategic Plan. The development of this plan should be led by the U.S. Department of Transportation, in partnership with state DOTs, cities, counties, MPOS and regional planning organizations, ports, freight shippers, freight carriers, and other stakeholders.

2. Provide dedicated funds for freight mobility/goods movement. The legislation should provide dedicated funds for freight mobility/goods movement. Dedicated funds should be provided to support capital investment in critical freight transportation infrastructure to produce major public benefits including higher productivity, enhanced global competitiveness and a higher standard of living for our nation. High priority should be given to investment in efficient goods movement on the most significant freight corridors, including investment in intermodal connectors into freight terminals and projects that support national and regional connectivity.

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3. Authorize a state-administered freight transportation program. Congress should authorize a state-administered freight transportation program as a new core element of the federal highway program apportioned to states.

4. If a new freight trust fund is created, it should be firewalled, with the funds fully spent on projects that facilitate freight transportation and not used for any other purpose. Priority should be given to nationally and regionally significant infrastructure, with funds distributed through a competitive grant process using objective, merit-based criteria. Appropriate projects that are freight-related should still be eligible to compete for other federal funding sources.

5. Establish a multi-modal freight office within the Office of the DOT Secretary. Freight mobility should be a key priority within DOT. The Secretary’s office should have staff with freight expertise that can focus on nationally and regionally significant infrastructure.

6. Form a national freight industry advisory group pursuant to the Federal Advisory Committee Act to provide industry input to DOT, working in conjunction with the new multi-modal freight office. The advisory group should be funded and staffed, and it should consist of freight transportation providers from all modes as well as shippers and state and local planning organizations. Despite the best efforts of the agency to function as “One DOT,” there is still not enough of a focused voice for freight. An "advisory group" would meet the need for regular and professional interaction between DOT and the diverse freight industry, and could help identify critical freight chokepoints in the national freight transportation system.

7. Fund multi-state freight corridor planning organizations. Given that goods often move across state lines and involve multiple modes of transportation, Congress should fund multi-state, multi-modal planning organizations that will make it possible to plan and invest in projects where costs are concentrated in a single state but benefits are distributed among multiple states.

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8. Build on the success of existing freight programs. There are numerous existing transportation programs that facilitate freight mobility and are demonstrably valuable. A new national freight policy should continue and strengthen these core programs or build on their principles and successes to guide freight program development if DOT is restructured and/or program areas are consolidated. Funding for discretionary programs should be awarded through a competitive grant process.

9. Expand freight planning expertise at the state and local levels. Given the importance of freight mobility to the national economy, States and MPOs should be provided additional funds for expert staff positions dedicated to freight issues (commensurate to the volumes of freight moving in and through their areas). All states should have a freight plan as a tool for planning investments and for linking to the national freight system.

10. Foster operational and environmental efficiencies in goods movement. As in other aspects of transportation, improvements designed to achieve long term sustainability in goods movement are desirable to meet both commercial objectives (economy and efficiency) and public objectives (energy security and reduced environmental impact). Federal policy should employ positive approaches to enhance freight system efficiency and throughput with the goal of reducing energy consumption and green house gas emissions.

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Allen D. Biehler, P.E., secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the current president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, illustrated how freight policy, infrastructure needs, and environmental concerns all intersect. Once, after a long flight night, he arrived late at Newark NJ, missing his connecting flight to Harrisburg PA. Rather than wait until the next day, Biehler said he rented a car and started driving back to Harrisburg.

“So I am leaving the airport around 10 p.m. at night and I pass this long line of trucks out on the turnpike – at least a seven mile backup of commercial vehicles waiting to get into Newark to pick up or drop off loads,” he related. “Think about that – seven miles worth of vehicles, all idling their engines, going nowhere. Think of the fuel wasted, the emissions created – all because we lack the necessary transportation infrastructure. That clearly illustrates, I think, the environmental impact of poor freight policy and why we need to correct it.”

“Businesses large and small … understand how critical it is to maintain, modernize and expand the nation’s freight transportation system,” added the Chmaber’s Kavinoky. “Economic recovery and long-term growth are supported by reliable and safe networks that are operated efficiently. That’s why we must make moving the commerce a central focus of any transportation-related legislation.”

The question is, though, are Congress and the President willing to listen?

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