It’s a sad state of affairs when the most anyone can hope for in the next surface transportation bill is that Congress calls for what most developing countries have had for years: a national freight transportation plan.
How the nation got here speaks volumes about the wide gap between rhetoric and action that is lowering expectations across the freight transportation world as a House-Senate conference committee tries to hammer out the first transportation spending bill since the five-year, $286.4 billion SAFETEA-LU in 2005.
As much as Congress trumpets the need for increased transportation spending, most members, along with President Obama, balk at raising the fuel tax, the major source of highway revenue. And, although the final version of the bill likely will speed highway project construction and boost spending for port dredging, these are only small steps compared to the leaps needed.
The U.S. needs to spend at least $101 billion annually, taking inflation into account, over the next 20 years to maintain the U.S. highway system, according to a Department of Transportation report. Federal, state and local governments would have to spend another $69 billion annually if they want to improve, not just maintain, the highway network. That makes the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill only a partial Band-Aid to infrastructure woes, while the House has failed to pass its five-year, $265 billion plan.
The hope now is the bandage at least will be applied more effectively. The Senate language calling for a national freight plan falls short of what is needed to make shippers more competitive overseas, but inclusion would be a major first step in spending smarter.
If Congress gives the DOT the go-ahead to begin creating such a plan, the agency likely would spend more time planning than building because the transportation bill could expire as soon as October 2013. The DOT would have about three years to designate a network of the most crucial 30,000 miles of roadway, said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition of America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. Rail and waterway lanes would be considered, but the focus would be on highways, much to the chagrin of those calling for a multimodal approach.
“So much of the need for a national freight policy isn’t just about prioritization and funding, but also helping shippers, retailers and transportation providers understand” where the trade routes are being shaped, Blakey said.
That visibility provided through a freight network plan also would allow shippers and transportation providers to determine where private dollars are needed to make up for government spending shortfalls. Such a plan also could help discourage local and state governments from spending on projects that don’t sync with freight flows, said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Transportation Foundation.
The Senate language calls for the creation of performance measures for federal highway programs but falls short in prioritizing projects. Ultimately, winners and losers must be designated, and the U.S. “needs a strong leader who will say, ‘Let’s do this the right way,’ ” Schank said.
The East Coast scramble to deepen ports to handle the larger ships that will begin transiting the expanded Panama Canal in 2015 is one area where federal oversight could be helpful. The realization that the cargo shift from the West Coast will likely be mild has only begun to take root on the Hill. For some ports, that makes the grab for limited federal funding amid so many competitors even more quixotic.
Through the Senate plan, the DOT would get about $2 billion for each of the two years to spend on road building, including on arteries connected to the designated network, environmental mitigation, and railway and highway construction. Up to 10 percent of the dollars, which would be drawn from state formulated funding, could be used toward freight rail and maritime projects.
Blakey hopes the creation of such a freight network will set a precedent, making it easier for Congress to expand the program through future surface transportation bills. The CAGTC envisions a multimodal plan that awards dollars from a trust fund to freight projects selected through a competitive and merit-based grant program. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the American Association of Port Authorities also support such an approach.
But with some members of Congress rejecting efforts to increase spending or shift more spending decisions to the state level, just getting the building blocks of a national freight plan together will be an achievement. Judging from the first week of conferencing, the prospects of Congress agreeing on a final surface transportation appear to have improved.
Backers of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, including Nick Rahall, the top Democrat on the House transportation committee, have signaled they won’t sacrifice construction jobs for the controversial oil pipeline.
“Our workers are waiting. Our road contractors are waiting. The American people are waiting. We can’t let our hard heads get in the way of hard hats,” said Rahall, of West Virginia.
Also waiting are shippers and transportation providers who have pleaded for a national freight vision for years.