Freight Needs Strong Voice, Vision

Freight Needs Strong Voice, Vision

Copyright 2009, Traffic World, Inc.

Dear President-elect Obama:

Although you face a multitude of problems - both domestic and international - the health of our freight transportation industry is critical to the defense of our country and its economic strength.

Often considered the "circulatory system" of the economy, the freight transportation industry allows the free flow of goods to support both commerce and defense. Our industry invisibly does its job every day to provide Americans with the goods they need to live their lives, operate their factories and defend our country. The American transportation industry is a model for the world because shippers collaborate with carriers and it strikes the right balance between public and private investment.

This success resulted from the vision of key individuals: Lincoln supported the building of transcontinental railroads; Eisenhower developed the Interstate Highway System; and Malcolm McLean developed containerization when he put 58 trucks on the deck of the Ideal X in 1956.

The freight transportation industry faces significant challenges in these tough economic times. Freight volumes are declining because of production cutbacks in the wider economy, and in turn, carriers have had to curtail operations to balance the lagging demand. But even so, our industry remains the largest consumer of energy on our highways, railways, waterways and airways. And we rely on the public to support this critical infrastructure. We are pleased that you are proposing an economic stimulus package that includes significant investment in this infrastructure that for too many years has been taken for granted and neglected. This effort will put the United States on the path to rebuild its economy and ensure that the movement of goods won't be hampered by outmoded or decaying infrastructure.

To fund this growth requires a vision for the 21st century. Improving our infrastructure requires increased funding, whether from increased fuel taxes, tolls or other user fees. The freight industry is willing to do its part - if it will improve the movement of freight and goods. Rather than pitting personal mobility against freight mobility, I believe that by improving the movement of freight, we all benefit from reduced congestion.

Early in your administration, you will be faced with reauthorizing the highway bill. The last bill, SAFETEA-LU, was infamous for its 6,300 earmarks including the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere." As your administration prepares for renewing this legislation, many voices will compete to see that their interests are represented.

I suggest that you consider the recent National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission report. The report points out that our overstressed infrastructure reduces safety and adds to congestion and delay for both people and goods. This congestion adds cost and increases the use of foreign oil and pollution.

Experts agree that renewed investment in infrastructure benefits us all by reducing congestion, preventing this circulatory system from suffering the effects of clogged arteries. But there is disagreement about how to fund this needed growth.

The level of investment required will be substantial. The funds will have to come from those who use the system whether from increased fuel taxes, tolls or other user fees. Most segments of the freight transportation industry are willing to step up to meet this fiscal demand - if the funds are utilized to improve freight and goods movements.

During this debate two important issues will be raised: first that there is a conflict between personal mobility and freight mobility. I would posit that it us just the opposite: when we improve freight and goods movements, personal mobility also improves and everyone benefits. Second, that the individual states are best suited to make the decisions on which projects.

I would call to your attention that the majority of freight movements are at the minimum regional if not national or global. It is essential we recognize this fact and allow for the development and funding of regional and national projects beyond the borders and jurisdiction of an individual state.

Mr. President-elect, this is one of the most tempestuous times faced by any incoming president. On election night you pledged to earn the support of even those who didn't vote for you. This industry is and should be apolitical because we serve everyone regardless of party affiliation. We stand ready to work with you and your team to ensure that our transportation system remains the barometer against which the rest of the world measures itself.

Yours truly,

John B. Ficker

-- John Ficker is the former president of the National Industrial Transportation League and former vice president at First Industrial Realty Trust.