It’s finally happening. After years of fits and starts, the Department of Transportation is moving forward in creating a national freight strategy.
The launch of the Freight Policy Council, however, in no way guarantees the group won’t join the scores of Washington advisory groups whose guidance amounts to good intentions and little else. To avoid this, the council must forge a convincing vision for legislators, policymakers and the private sector. The likely decline in infrastructure funding in the coming years will only make this task trickier, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s comments at the council’s listening session this month reflect as much.
“We must tackle three key challenges,” LaHood told carriers, policymakers and DOT officials. “First, we must develop a national strategic vision on freight. Second, the public and private sector must work together to invest in our nation’s freight network. And third, we must plan and deliver freight infrastructure projects faster and more efficiently than ever.”
Judging from the Sept. 13 session, the council — called for by Congress in the recently passed $105 billion surface transportation bill — appears to be off to a solid start. Members of the council understand its multimodal network must be measured by metrics important to carrier and shippers, and they are working with the private sector to determine what those indicators are. The council also realizes it’s key to convince more states to create their own freight plans that jell with the national network. In creating its national network, the council will need to determine what work is needed to enhance the system and at what cost.
The Maryland Department of Transportation took a similar approach before unveiling its freight plan in 2009, said Nicole Katsikides, director of MDOT’s office of freight and intermodalism. “We realized that some of these projects could be resolved through policy solutions or modes talking to each other,” she said. For instance, certain areas of highway congestion could be solved by increasing freight rail capacity nearby, helping to fix two problems with one project.
That will be the easy part. The council still will need “to sit down and have a dialogue on what needs to be done in the national interest,” said Randy Mullett, vice president of government relations and public affairs at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based trucking and logistics giant Con-way.
Freight projects should be funded by their worth, not on whose legislative representatives “shout the loudest and have the most political power,” he said. A clear system of judging the cost-benefit ratio of the proposed project could help minimize such interference on the state level and, if Congress lifts its earmark ban, on the national level, too.
Such difficult decisions aren’t limited just to which freight projects should get priority, but also what policy changes are needed to ensure the nation can handle the 61 percent growth in freight the DOT expects between 2007 and 2040. The transportation industry needs to “get beyond the idea that this is some kind of zero-sum game,” Mullett said. There will be more than enough freight for all carriers in the coming years, but they won’t be up to the task unless they cooperate.
Although operations changes such as double-stacking rail containers can boost network efficiencies and capacity, policy changes, often much more contentious, also are necessary. Mullett pointed to the need to ease truck weight and size restrictions. The railroad industry lobbied Congress to remove language that would increase the truck limits in the recent transportation bill, leaving only orders to keep studying the potential impact of allowing heavier rigs.
Opponents of raising truck weights and sizes argue the easing of rules would cause additional wear-and-tear to highways and roads, while proponents say an extra axle would alleviate additional pressure caused by heavier loads.
It’s too soon to tell whether the council will ask the tough questions and whether carriers will work together on the answers. For years, the transportation industry has criticized Congress for taking the easy road when it came to infrastructure funding, namely balking about raising the fuel tax. Now, with what looks like a seat close to the wheel, the transportation industry will be tested at the coming fork in the road.