Three lawmakers made a lot of noise last month with the introduction of a bill that promises to spur investment in the national network for the movement of goods. Christened with the clunky acronym of the FREIGHT Act of 2010, which stands for Focusing Resources, Economic Investment, and Guidance to Help Transportation, the measure is being touted by a number of groups as the magic bullet for fixing our nation's crumbling, inadequate infrastructure. But this "visionary, comprehensive, systemic approach" - in the words of the bill's authors - isn't nearly comprehensive enough to solve a decades-long problem.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (both D-WA) signing on as co-sponsors. All have the best of intentions. They aim to craft a national freight policy that will advance the cause of clean and efficient multimodal transportation. Under the bill, the U.S. Department of Transportation would get an Office of Freight Planning and Development, headed up by an assistant secretary. A new National Freight Infrastructure Grants Initiative would fund freight projects based on merit and competitive bidding. DOT would be required to develop a National Freight Transportation Strategic Plan, to shepherd infrastructure investments over the long term. Finally, the measure encourages "concurrent improvements in air quality impacts, carbon emissions, energy use and public health and safety by establishing environmental goals to complement goals for reducing delays and improving travel time reliability on freight corridors, at gateways and heavy freight population centers."
Words, words, words, as Hamlet said. But a number of industry heavyweights seem to like them. "We applaud the leadership of Senators Lautenberg, Murray and Cantwell in advancing the nation's freight policy and promoting public-private partnerships that enable the safe and efficient movement of goods by rail," said Edward R. Hamberger, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads. According to Joel Anderson, president of the International Warehouse Logistics Association, the program as laid out in the new bill "will not only help us to preserve our competitive position in the world marketplace, but it will stimulate jobs in logistics." Also chiming in with support were Transportation for America, the American Association of Port Authorities and the Environmental Defense Fund.
Among the biggest supporters of the FREIGHT Act of 2010 is the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors, whose 60-odd members include motor carriers, ports, railroads and engineers. Mortimer L. Downey, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation and now a senior adviser to Parsons Brinckerhoff in Washington, D.C., serves as chairman of the board to the coalition. He calls the bill "a really good starting point." The previous surface transportation authorization bill, known as SAFETEA-LU for Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (who thinks up these acronyms?), was a breakthrough in garnering national attention for the U.S. freight network, Downey says, but not in a sustainable way. The FREIGHT Act, with its focus on forging a national freight policy, is the next big step in that direction.
The now-expired SAFETEA-LU called for the identification of transportation freight projects of national and regional significance. Unfortunately, in the course of finalizing the bill, "House and Senate members hijacked that provision and basically earmarked every dollar to projects of interest to those senior members," Downey says. As a result, the measure turned out to be "a fairly mixed bag" for freight interests. The FREIGHT Act looks to plug that hole by setting up a formal process for prioritizing investments according to merit and competitive bidding. DOT, not Congress, would call the shots.
That's a better idea, although it doesn't totally shield the funding process from political influence-peddling. (Nothing does, where money and bulldozers are concerned.) But the bigger problem with the FREIGHT Act lies in what it doesn't contain - such as an actual mechanism for funding those critical infrastructure projects. "The bill has blanks in terms of the money to be authorized," admits Downey. "What I think has been achieved is getting freight to the table ... when those decisions are going to be made."
So we bring freight to the table. But do we allow it to be served? That's the battle that has been fought for years, and it's getting worse. Advocates of spending more money on public transportation, possibly at the expense of freight, are doing an excellent job these days of making their voices heard. Then there's the prospect of high-speed passenger rail, costing untold billions of dollars. Not to mention the difficulties of fairly allocating funds among the various modes of transportation.
Which brings us to an even more glaring oversight in the FREIGHT Act: the lack of any language related to improvements for existing highways, except for a limited number of roads that connect up with ports. That's the reason why the American Trucking Associations opposes the bill in its current form. As ATA spokesman Brandon Borgna points out, highways carry more than 68 percent of the nation's freight. What kind of a viable bill leaves them out?
"While we appreciate the recognition that the sponsors of this legislation have given to the importance of freight transportation, the highway reauthorization bill is almost a full year past due, and federal aid funding for highways is on the verge of collapse," ATA said in a statement earlier this summer. "This legislation does not remedy this growing crisis."
What's really needed at this juncture is a new authorization bill to follow SAFETEA-LU. Neither Congress nor the Obama Administration seems willing to tackle that issue in the run-up to the mid-term elections. Asked whether he believes we're anywhere close to getting a new highway bill, Downey replies: "I hate to say it, but the answer is no." Powerful interests can't agree on the means of funding; the Administration has ruled out raising taxes for that purpose, and Republicans are adamantly opposed to giving the President any kind of victory between now and November. So make it 2011 at the earliest, with yet another short-term extension possibly coming before a full-fledged bill. In the meantime, gridlock. And the FREIGHT Act of 2010, for all its high-flown language about the importance of commercial transportation, does nothing to relieve it.
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