Given less pressure on capacity and a focus on high-speed rail, goods movement advocates are unlikely to get everything they want out of the upcoming five-year reauthorization of the nation’s highway spending plan. But there is something visionary and cheap Congress can do this year to support the movement of goods: Force the Department of Transportation’s highway, rail, maritime and aviation agencies to work together to improve freight mobility.
With intermodal dominating freight movement, there are obvious opportunities for modal agencies within the DOT to cooperate. But although intermodal has revolutionized freight transportation over the last three decades, the federal agency responsible for transportation still epitomizes the term stovepipe.
The results speak for themselves. Freight policy leadership does not come from the DOT. Modal agencies such as the Maritime Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration are focused on their own narrow areas of jurisdiction — U.S.-flag shipping in the case of Marad (arguably more of a military or homeland security than a transportation mission) and rail safety in the case of the FRA.
Instead of seeing opportunities to cooperate, vested interests within and outside of the DOT see change as a threat to their influence. No wonder that in 2009, 30 years after deregulation and more than a half century after the arrival of the marine container, there remains no national transportation strategy, only sporadic investment to relieve freight bottlenecks and a growing belief that inadequate freight mobility is hurting the nation’s competitiveness.
“I think a better integration of the (DOT’s) freight mission is a desirable goal, but it is beyond a huge challenge . . . because there are a lot of good, responsible parties who want to keep things the way they are,” said Bruce Carlton, a longtime Marad official and now president of the National Industrial Transportation League.
For some, the lack of coordination among the modal agencies is becoming intolerable. In its wish list for this year’s reauthorization of the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, the Freight Stakeholders Coalition singles out modal cooperation within the DOT. The group, a loose-knit round table of ports, shippers, carriers and state transportation officials, wants to establish a multimodal freight office within the transportation secretary’s office to mandate freight mobility be a key priority within the DOT.
The group says the secretary’s office should have staff with freight expertise that can focus on nationally and regionally significant infrastructure.
This has been tried before, without success. An office of intermodal transportation policy was created in the 1990s but over time was reorganized virtually out of existence. This time, however, there may be more momentum to getting something done. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has indicated a strong interest in re-establishing a cross-modal structure within the DOT, which he pointedly says does not exist today.
If it did, “they would have convened a monthly meeting of all the modal administrators, but not once have they done that. And that’s not right,” he told The Journal of Commerce in March.
In the highway spending reauthorization bill that he will unveil soon, he said, “We’ll establish an assistant secretary for intermodalism, and we’ll have directives for that secretary to convene the modal administrators periodically . . . and take action or share information and help to improve our transportation system.”
Any way you look at it, the DOT is way out of step with how freight transport has evolved in the U.S. and globally. Intermodal has emerged as the dominant system for consumer and manufactured goods worldwide, stitching together global supply chains. Intermodal represented 39 percent of total U.S. rail units in 2007, up from 9 percent in 1980, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Yet the DOT seems to be on the outside looking in. Even major changes such as the Coast Guard’s 2003 shift to the Department of Homeland Security, which should have allowed the DOT to focus on transportation without being distracted by a homeland security mission, hasn’t really changed anything.
Much of the blame — and opportunity — resides in Congress. More so than the White House, Congress controls transportation policy through its dominance over the highway bill and especially its treasured earmarks. This is in contrast to Japan, where powerful ministries hold sway over the Legislature, and China, where the central government drives spending — both examples of how national strategies are developed and implemented.
In the U.S., by contrast, national vision falls victim to regional priorities. Take the Projects of National and Regional Significance program in SAFETEA-LU, designed to provide discretionary funding to states for trans-state projects that would benefit freight. “At the end of the day, that whole program was earmarked,” leaving little money for freight projects, said Ezra Finkin, director of the Waterfront Coalition.
Something needs to change. A good place to start is to empower the DOT to think intermodally. Better late than never.
Peter Tirschwell is senior adviser of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7158, or at email@example.com.