The second-highest official at the Department of Transportation told senators that increasing the share of freight hauled by railroads "could be a cost-effective approach to meeting our stated strategic goals."
Although Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari was quick to add that "this does not imply disinvesting in highways or waterways," his remarks were in line with those he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made earlier this year when saying DOT policy aims to get more trucks off the nation's roads.
Porcari, in remarks prepared for delivery to a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also said "increasing the percentage of certain intermodal movements could be particularly telling on the investment needs in other forms of transportation."
By The Numbers: U.S. Rail Cargo.
That suggests the DOT believes diverting a larger share of truck-hauled containers or trailers to railroads, and in some cases to barge operations, would ease both roadway congestion and pavement damage to save money on new highways or road repairs. The comments came in a Sept. 15 hearing to examine the federal role in national rail policy.
Highway interests fear that the Obama administration's emphasis on expanding passenger and freight rail service means giving that sector a greater share of federal transportation funds as well. The president earlier this month said he favors integrating rail on an equal basis to other programs - mainly highways - in a broad-concept transportation trust fund.
Rail customers who have lobbied for years for a new shipper-oriented rail competition bill fret that Obama and DOT rail policies could boost that sector without locking in freight customer protections that the Commerce Committee is trying to write into law.
Porcari said all freight modes will continue to grow with freight volume, but that the DOT aims for "policies and investments that place all the modes on a level playing field" where "objective, merit-based measures" will guide federal spending instead of state-allocation formulas.
For rail freight customers, he said "public policy needs to be sensitive to shippers who have limited transport options," but "freight railroads must be able to earn enough to assure we avoid another era of the downward spiral of declining service quality, declining investment and declining revenue" that preceded rail deregulation in 1980.
The DOT official conceded that "finding the correct balance will be difficult, and we need to recognize that history would indicate that we will be very fortunate indeed if we find this balance the first time."
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.