On July 29, Congress passed the $286.5 billion six-year highway bill known as SAFETEA-LU. The bill reauthorizes federal transportation spending after the previous highway bill formally expired almost two years ago.
Cargo owners and freight interests were successful in focusing a significant share of the discussions on goods-movement issues compared to previous reauthorization efforts. However, highway bill conferees were confronted with a limited pool of money needed to address many freight and non-freight related transportation projects. While many important freight projects made the list, earmarked spending barely covered the cost of the project.
SAFETEA-LU did not include the intermodal freight funding language included in the Senate-passed highway bill that would have required all states to spend at least 2 percent of highway funding on freight intermodal connectors. That provision was considered too costly given the price tag of the bill and the political momentum behind an effort to increase the "guaranteed minimum" that states receive in transport funding from 90.5 percent of gas tax revenue to 92 percent. Instead, the bill includes spending on "Projects of Regional and National Significance", the "Corridors and Borders Program" and other highway projects to meet freight movement needs. These programs dedicate funding to freight-friendly initiatives but then earmark spending to specific projects. The Department of Transportation is then left with very little discretionary spending after these earmarks are included.
While many port-related goods movement projects were included in the list of earmarks, the level of funding rarely equates to the true cost of the program. Below are a list of port related projects conferees included in the final highway bill. Many of these projects have been endorsed by the Waterfront Coalition in the recently published "National Marine Container Transportation System: A Call to Action".
Port of Long Beach
The port received $100 million through the Projects of Regional and National Significance (PRNS) to reconstruct the Gerald Desmond Bridge. The bridge is a major thoroughfare for trucks linking Long Beach terminals with roads and highways feeding distribution centers. Today, the bridge is in a poor state of repair and must be expanded in order to relieve transportation related bottlenecks.
Unfortunately, federal funding only represents a drop in the bucket. The highway bill only earmarks $100 million out of a needed $745 million for the project leaving state and local entities responsible for the lion's share of the cost of the project.
Port of Los Angeles
The Southern California gateway was hoping for $21.5 million to make significant improvements to the Interstate-110-State Road 47-Harbor Boulevard interchange. However, the port only received $4 million for the project, once again leaving state and local entities to come up with most of the funding. The port also received $1.6 million in federal funding to study an upgrade for the Vincent Thomas Bridge, another major artery serving the port complex.
Alameda Corridor East
The big surprise in the highway bill for goods movement in Southern California was the $125 million earmarked for the Alameda Corridor East project. The project eliminates railroad grade crossings on a 35-mile route from intermodal terminals in downtown LA through to the Inland Empire and other eastern communities. The project is expected to cost a total of $600 million.
The project is a favorite of powerful House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) whose district includes many of the communities that have long urged more at-grade rail separations to ease traffic congestion.
Port of Virginia and the "Heartland Corridor"
One of the major wins in the bill was $90 million earmarked for the Heartland Corridor planned to link Port of Virginia terminals with a major new intermodal transfer facility in Columbus, Ohio by way of updated Norfolk Southern rail lines. The money allows NS to improve tunnels along an under-used coal route to allow for double-stacked intermodal rail cars. The multi-state project will increase service from the East Coast to this new Columbus terminal. The project is expected to cost around $250 million.
The port of Virginia also received $15 million to expand on-dock rail service to the new APM Terminals facility currently under construction.
One of the losses for freight movement in the legislation was funding for the Chicago CREATE program, also endorsed by the Waterfront Coalition. The project seeks to eliminate bottlenecks in many rail interchanges in and around Chicago, one of the nation's premier intermodal exchanges between eastern and western railroads. Today, some cargo must be trucked from one terminal to another through the city leading to lengthy delays. The CREATE project would help minimize these delays by removing railroad crossings and locating rail terminals as close as possible.
Unfortunately, the highway bill only earmarked $100 million for the $1.5 billion project. Industry analyst described this level of funding as barely representing a drop in the bucket for the important project.
Port of Seattle
The Pacific Northwest port, while not asking for much from the bill, did receive $220 million for the Alaskan Way viaduct. This is a raised highway that runs parallel to Seattle terminals and is responsible for moving much truck-borne freight. The viaduct is rapidly falling apart and engineers have had to ban heavy trucks carrying intermodal equipment from certain lanes. Once again, the appropriation barely covers the cost of the $1.5 billion project.
South Carolina State Ports Authority
South Carolina ports received $10 million to connect a new terminal built on a former Navy base with Interstate-86. When this terminal comes on-line, the port connector to I-86 is expected to facilitate much truck-borne traffic.
Port Authority of New York New Jersey
While the Port Authority also did not ask for much, it will benefit from a $100 million earmark for the Liberty Corridor, a pet transport project for Democratic Rep. Bob Menendez. This is a project that, in part, will help develop barge service though New Jersey terminals. Much of the funding will also go to develop "freight villages" and roads feeding distribution centers.
Also included in the spending bill was $100 million for the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel. This pet project of Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.) seeks to construct a dedicated truck and rail tunnel under the New York-New Jersey harbor linking New Jersey with Brooklyn. Transportation experts expect the project to cost upwards of several billion dollars.
Port of Portland Ore.
The state received $160 million for its Interstate-5 Corridor improvement projects including bridge repair and replacements. Much of these projects will help move cargo through the port.
The port also received $11million for construction of the Ramsey Rail Yard and $1 million for improvements to the Troutdale interchange at Interstate-84 and 257th Street.
Ezra Finkin is a legislative representative for the Waterfront Coalition based in Washington, D.C.