Those of us privileged enough to have reached a certain age with long-term memory intact will recall the decades of struggle by freight-transportation interests to have their voices heard in the corridors of power. How many times have shippers and carriers called for a national transportation policy, whatever that might mean? And how often have they been forced to take a back seat to issues with a higher public profile?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The issue at hand today is the amount of federal stimulus and infrastructure funds being directed to projects related to the movement of freight. And if the past is any indication, expect another struggle. Remember those bike paths that were paid for by money from ISTEA, the so-called Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act?
This time around, the funding vehicle is the proposed Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009. The matter has been put off by lawmakers for at least six months at the behest of the Obama Administration, which has some more immediate matters on its plate, like a couple of wars, a economy in the tank and healthcare reform. But when money is finally disbursed for infrastructure improvements, will freight interests get their fair share? Bruce J. Carlson, president and chief executive officer of the National Industrial Transportation League (www.nitl.org), believes that isn't likely to occur without - you guessed it - a national freight policy.
"We're eager to see that happen," Carlson said at a press conference at NITL's annual conference in Anaheim, Calif. Still, he has no illusions about freight's current position on the national agenda. "We're not in first place," he said. "Healthcare reform is."
On the plus side, "nobody has to explain what 'infrastructure' means anymore. I think people get it." Yet the word connotes more than just transportation; it covers electricity, water, electronic commerce, cell phone networks - in short, everything that ties a nation's resources together. So the question remains: where exactly does freight fit into that big picture?
Carlson didn't sound optimistic about getting an answer anytime soon. "If past is prologue, we are all doomed," he said, noting that the existing highway safety bill has undergone a dozen extensions. "I'm hoping we are not going to repeat that."
Commercial interests know there will be a price to pay. They'll accept a higher diesel fuel tax or national mileage tax, for example, as long as the money goes directly to transportation projects. "This is not a free lunch," said Carlson. "If there is a place where the will is weak, it's in our Congress."
Transportation providers are less happy about paying new fees levied on containers and trucks at the local level. But what really has them steamed are recent attempts by regional interests to regulate access by private operators. One of the biggest transgressors, in their eyes, is the Port of Los Angeles, which is trying to ban independent owner-operators from draying containers to and from port docks. (See my earlier post on the topic, http://www.supplychainbrain.com/content/blogs/think-tank/blog/article/war-on-indie-truckers-port-of-long-beach-backs-off-la-digs-in-1/.) "We think it is absolutely the wrong way to proceed on this matter of public policy," Carlson said. "Cities, counties and states should not be in the business of regulating interstate commerce."
NITL executive vice president Peter J. Gatti added that the Clean Trucks Program currently in effect at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has already led to a big reduction in pollution, without the need for a ban on owner-operators. (That aspect of the Port of Los Angeles' overall Clean Air Action Plan is currently tied up in the courts, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the American Trucking Associations.)
The League is keeping a close eye on nascent efforts to pass a law that would permit localities to meddle in interstate transportation matters, without fear of constitutional challenge. While Los Angeles is the only port so far to have taken direct action on this front, the mayors of New York City, Newark, N.J., and Oakland, Calif., have expressed support for such a measure. "Our biggest fear," said Gatti, "is that we're going to go back to almost local economic regulation, where every single local jurisdiction is placing new and different requirements [on transportation providers]."
Gatti said members of Congress are just now getting caught up to speed on the issue. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is well aware of the difficulties that industry would face under a system that allows for local control over carriers, he added.
Still, said Gatti, "Congress is dealing with a jillion issues." And freight must take its place in line. Anyone for a national transportation policy?
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