Crisis Point

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an expert in U.S. infrastructure investment would tell an audience of shippers that the country is at a “crisis point” in transportation funding. But when that turns out to be the most optimistic view of the Washington impasse, you start to get concerned.

In fact, at last week’s Washington Freight Transportation Policy Forum, hosted by the National Industrial Transportation League and co-sponsored by The Journal of Commerce, the outlook for any reasoned action on the nation’s pressing needs ranged somewhere between dire and disastrous.

“We may be at the end of the era of federal transportation planning,” said Alex Herrgott, a staff member on the Republican side of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Or, as a Democratic staffer cracked, “It’s the end of days.”

They were describing the political landscape as it exists today in Washington, and not as they’d like it to be, and you didn’t have to look far for the impact on the very real landscape that governs shipping and trade. Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, followed the grim assessments of the prospects for federal support with a nuts-and-bolts description of the physical reality of shipping in 2011 and, more significantly, in the coming years.

The shipping world knows that story, of course. Container ship capacity is becoming increasingly concentrated in larger ships, and ports will need something closer to 50-foot-deep harbors without restrictions to handle not only 10,000- and 12,000-TEU vessels but also 8,000-TEU ships. Newsome said those ships will be the “warhorses” of the East Coast, but some already are reaching South Carolina’s Port of Charleston.

The contrast with that basic business reality and the impasse over spending in Washington was especially striking because the broad outlines of transportation investment come down to the direct issue of Charleston’s channel depth. That contrast is at the heart of that crisis point in transportation planning.

Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Transportation Foundation, says it means those who seemingly agree on broader transportation goals need to start “a conversation about what really matters.” That’s because, he said, “The fundamental problem is beyond marketing (of the importance of investment). You are not going to convince this Congress to raise revenue.”

Or, as Emil Frankel, director of transportation policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center bluntly puts it, “There will be hell to pay for anyone who touches anything to do with taxes.”

Frankel and others believe there may be one solution in the deep analytics that accompany many infrastructure projects.

Some transportation officials, for instance, believe Congress, which stands to lose control of transportation projects with its ban on earmarks, could create a “hybrid” spending process with the Department of Transportation. Under that plan, Congress could send a list of favored projects to the DOT for disciplined, transparent analysis based on set criteria involving costs, benefits and relevance to a national system.

Under that idea, the best projects get funding and a federal agency isn’t necessarily in the position of simply “picking winners,” as critics of federal spending planning say.

That may mark the end of one era, but the beginning of another.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe