WASHINGTON, D.C. — The message from freight transportation leaders to Congress on Wednesday was far from new.
But their testimony at a newly formed House panel suggests the federal government is moving forward on a national freight infrastructure strategy, even if it lacks the will to fully fund needed investments. The testimony also highlighted coming battles between the rail and trucking industries regarding the latter’s weight limits, and battles between East Coast ports over federal dollars for harbor deepening.
The heads of FedEx, Norfolk Southern Railway, the South Carolina Ports Authority, and Werner Enterprises told legislators the federal government needs to spend more on infrastructure, change regulations to reflect industry changes and forge a strategy on how to invest in highways, ports and airports. Their testimony was the first House hearing of the new Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation, aimed at bringing lawmakers up to speed on where the freight transport industry stands and how Uncle Sam can help.
“In the past, the conversation about freight transportation has focused on specific modes of transportation. However, given the multimodal nature of freight movement, it is important to examine the system as a whole,” said Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., chairman of the panel under the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Bottlenecks arising at any point on the system can seriously impede freight mobility and drive up the cost of the goods impacted.”
Bottleneck in the Air
One of those freight bottlenecks became particular apparent to air travelers this week, after the Federal Aviation Administration began furloughing the roughly 14,750 air traffic controllers up to two days on Monday.
Air cargo shippers are seeing their shipments delayed, too. The reduced traffic controller work force, part of $600 million worth of sequestration cuts at the agency, is affecting passengers more than shippers, but flight delays are hampering FedEx operations, according to CEO, Chairman and President Fred Smith.
Trade group Airlines for America has filed suit against the FAA in an attempt to force the agency to shift its resources to blunt the furloughs. In the longer term, Smith called for the government to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System. By updating the current ground-based system to one guided by satellite, flight routes will be shortened, capacity better managed and delays reduced, he said.
“We waste millions and millions of gallons of fuel a day, (and) impede the productivity of our nation’s commerce and the traveling public by not modernizing our air traffic control system to a satellite-based system that allows much more flexibility and efficiency,” Smith said.
Boosting Truck Sizes
The panel was also told that the government should allow the trucking industry to expand its trailer size from the current 28-foot limit to 33 feet, allowing carriers to haul more goods, particularly the lightweight items increasingly bought online. Werner Enterprises President Derek Leathers echoed Smith’s comments on the need for the industry to haul bigger loads, saying that the U.S. has the lowest truck weight limits in the developed world.
The fight over raising truck weight limits and dimensions has pitted the trucking industry against railroads and safety advocates before and likely will again.
Opponents of higher truck weight limits say heavier loads would cause more wear and tear on highways and roads and increase the severity of accidents. The trucking industry counters that additional axles would negate extra wear and tear on highways caused by heavier loads and safety wouldn’t be hampered as a result. The trucking industry failed to get weight limits raised in the recent surface transportation bill last year, but it hopes a study on the topic, commissioned through MAP-21, will lend support to its case.
Unlike Smith, who said he was open to taxing Americans based on how far they drive, Leathers said the best way to increase highway and road funding is by raising the federal fuel taxes. He said the infrastructure for taxing users is already in place and costs about 1 percent of all revenue collected, whereas the infrastructure needed for tolling and taxing users by how far they drive would consume 23 to 50 percent of all revenue collected. Leathers added that tolling will also spur drivers to use non-tolled routes, reducing safety.
He warned Congress that a solution to boosting the Highway Trust Fund coffers is needed because the main engine of federal highway and road construction will be in “dire straits in 18 months.” To balance the fund by 2015, Congress will have to raise the fuel taxes by 8 cents or trim annual spending by $4 billion to $54 billion, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released Wednesday. Leathers rejected the idea of cutting construction spending to only what the fund could sustain without contributions from the general fund.
Regulating the Railroads
Wick Moorman, Norfolk Southern chairman, president and CEO, said railroads aren’t dependent on the federal government to upgrade the freight rail network, which he said was in the best shape in 50 years. But federal grants, such as those through the Projects of National and Regional Significance and TIGER programs, do help.
Moorman said regulation needs to better reflect the current state of the industry and technology, as the longer it takes to authorize a project the longer it takes for the economic impact to take root. He urged Congress “to resist any attempt to alter freight railroads’ ability to earn adequate returns and invest in our companies.”
Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authorit, outlined how Congress should authorize port projects considering limited resources. He urged Congress to create a “significant and capital budget to address U.S. harbor shortcomings in multiple years.” Newsome said Congress also needs to create a system to prioritize East Coast deepening projects by weighing the costs and benefits of the port being able to handle larger ships able to traverse the expanded Panama Canal in 2015. In other words, “there will be winners and losers,” he said.
The authorization process would rank projects, instead of just using the current cost-benefit analysis needed to gain the Army Corps of Engineers’ authorization. In the long term, Congress must find a way to address port projects other than dredging and jetty maintenance, Newsome said. He pointed to the need to raise the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey, and the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach, Calif., so the adjacent ports can handle larger vessels.
Taking the Lead
The testimony heard Wednesday could spur Congress to order the Department of Transportation to take a more multimodal approach to the creation of a national freight plan.
Through the passage of MAP-21 last year, Congress told the DOT to create a freight strategy policy that focuses on the roughly 30,000-mile highway and road network. Many freight proponents were dismayed that the freight network didn’t include freight rail or inland waterways. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said the freight policy will encompass non-highway connections, but many freight advocates want rail and inland waterway routes to be included in the national network.
When asked by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., what it would take to get a national freight strategy, Smith said the DOT would have to take the lead.
“And Congress?” Nadler interjected.
“Congress is the boss of the (DOT) secretary … Congress can certainly provide leadership,” Smith said.