One of the smallest victims of Capitol Hill’s battle over transportation funding may be the one most missed by industry and government leaders who need solid data to create effective programs.
The National Cooperative Freight Research Program weighs in at only $3.4 million annually, but it’s just beginning to prove its value to policymakers, according to Daniel S. Smith, a principal with the Tioga Group transportation consultant in Philadelphia. “It’s just starting to get some traction and visibility, but it’s a new program, and it’s vulnerable,” Smith said. “The thing I really like about the NCFRP is that it tends to address big topics with public policy implications.”
Freight research is one of several cooperative programs administered by the Transportation Research Board, and the board has published 13 reports from the program since September 2009.
Smith is one of the principal authors of the “Truck Drayage Productivity Guide,” published last June and designed, the TRB says, “to help improve drayage productivity and capacity while reducing emissions, costs, and port-area congestion at deep-water ports.”
Other reports address freight facility location, performance measures and the effects of public policy on the freight transportation system. In 2010, the program produced a widely read examination of the marine highways program.
The cooperative freight program gets its money from the Highway Trust Fund, so there’s no surprise that future funding is in doubt. The program’s budget has been authorized through Sept. 30, but Congress hasn’t appropriated any funds, according to a TRB official who requested anonymity.
The six-year transportation spending program that first authorized specific research on freight expired in September 2009. Absent a new transportation bill, Congress has kept the old one alive through extensions. The latest expires on March 31, unless there’s a new law or lawmakers make one more extension.
The loss of funding for research would be the smallest problem caused by a shutdown of federal transportation programs, the TRB official said.
Funding for those programs in 2013 is an even greater problem. The House and Senate were miles apart when they recessed last week. The five-year, $260 billion House transportation package provides no funding for research. The two-year, $209 billion Senate plan authorizes the program, but there is no authorization of funds.
“There’s always a danger when titans clash something relatively small but valuable will get hurt,” Smith said.
The drayage guide is designed to give port managers, truckers, regional planners and other involved groups “tools to improve drayage productivity and capacity while reducing emissions, costs and port-area congestion,” according to its introduction. It examines congestion at terminals, gates and on highways. It covers delays, chassis supply, and emissions.
Smith said the transportation industry does its own research in a particular mode. The Association of American Railroads’ research facility at Pueblo, Colo., is an example. But industry research tends to yield highly specialized, technical results.
“The technical research is important, but somebody’s got to be looking at the big public issues. That’s where the NCFRP program is really filling a void,” Smith said. “In the long run, the most important thing is for the federal government to be making good decisions.” The NCFRP program tries to provide the solid objective information on which to make decisions.