With the Bush administration set to depart within the year, it's easy enough to point to private-sector developments in the international intermodal system during the administration's two terms in office. These, of course, would include the shift to East Coast routing by importers precipitated by the West Coast labor disruption and congestion, the emergence of major Midwest rail industrial parks and the restoration of quality intermodal rail service. Not to be ignored were the mostly unheralded efforts to manage soaring container volumes moving through a delicate system of ports, roads and rail that could back up at a moment's notice into a cross-country traffic jam.
A common view is that in the U.S., the private sector is on its own in accomplishing this feat. The government has been a non-player, so the belief goes. While the system may be intrinsic to an economy that is now service-oriented and dependent on imports, the widespread view is that Washington has remained deaf, dumb and blind to its challenges, its system of transport funding mired in the past and institutionally incapable of meaningfully addressing today's needs. If true, that would paint a picture of the Bush administration as almost recklessly laissez-faire, so removed from the mechanics as to border on negligent in its oversight of a system so critical economically.
Is that a fair characterization? Is it even accurate? Is this how this administration should be remembered in this specialized area of policymaking? Thinking this is probably unfair, I reached out to the person who, more than anyone else in the administration, understood intermodal needs and championed its cause. That would be Jeffrey Shane, who resigned in January as undersecretary for policy at the Department of Transportation. Ending his fifth tour of duty at the DOT, Shane has returned to the transportation practice of Hogan & Hartson in Washington.
Shane believes there has been progress, and it's hard to disagree. Probably the biggest step forward was in raising the consciousness of Washington. This progress is perhaps somewhat intangible, but it's all but certain to carry over into the next administration, regardless of who wins in November. "The sea change that took place while I was there was that we had always heard from the providers of transportation," Shane said. "Those are DOT's natural constituents, but in this administration, we started to hear from the users of the transportation system, and what they were telling us was that the system is not serving them very well."
Shane was referring to the now-famous meetings facilitated by APL's chief executive, Ron Widdows, in which logistics managers from major shippers including Nike, Dell, Toys "R" Us, Federated Department Stores, Pier 1 Imports and others met face to face with presidential advisers in 2005. "We all marched over to the White House and sat down with some of the president's economic advisers, and it was something to behold to see those guys furiously taking notes as these very knowledgeable logisticians began to spell out reasons why their companies were not hiring at the numbers they wanted to hire. What they were saying is that we live in this just-in-time economy, so why are we maintaining inventory in ways we haven't done in years? The reason is as a hedge against an inefficient international supply chain."
"Those meetings really helped put goods movement on the national policy agenda in a more prominent way than ever before," he said.
But Shane was also reminded of the cold realities of freight's age-old secondary status in Washington. Two initiatives that would have done much to improve freight movement - requiring states to spend 2 percent of federal grant money on roads that connect seaports and intermodal facilities to highways, and requiring states to appoint a special coordinator to champion freight - were dropped from the final SAFETEA-LU highway bill. The CREATE plan to untangle rail lines around Chicago remains woefully underfunded, and public-private partnerships to tap private capital by allowing for more sophisticated toll systems, and thus more efficient use of roads, still encounter vigorous opposition. But at the same time, there were successes, Shane said, such as the introduction of tax-free private activity bonds to fund intermodal projects and a new freight transport policy framework, at least on paper.
"Nobody in government, in the executive or legislative branch, has any right to pat themselves on the back," Shane said. "The Bush administration tried to move things in the right direction, and did so, but we have a long way to go."