CREATE-ing Export Hopes

CREATE-ing Export Hopes

When the Obama administration completed the paperwork to release $100 million in a stimulus grant to help untangle Chicago’s time-wasting web of railroad tracks and city streets, it tied the spending to exports.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said putting money into the CREATE program — the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency set of multiyear construction projects — supports President Obama’s National Export Initiative to double U.S. exports in five years.

“We are helping to promote trade and commerce in the Chicago region,” Mendez said.

Because about 25 percent of U.S. freight rail traffic moves through Chicago and often loses up to a full day just getting past the city as it bogs down in the slow, winding track network, clearing away bottlenecks can speed the flow of U.S. goods for inland shippers trying to get their products to seaports.

Grants from last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were primarily meant to give the faltering economy a jump-start, but the DOT also is targeting some of its funds toward projects that can improve the freight infrastructure over the longer term.

“Improving mobility for goods and people will lead to a quicker recovery and overall stronger economy,” Mendez said.

That export focus is showing up throughout the administration.

When the Commerce Department reported that U.S. exports through May were up 17.7 percent from a year earlier, the Export-Import Bank touted it as a sign the five-year doubling goal could be met. Goods exports alone rose 22.4 percent in the first five months.

Ex-Im Bank Chairman and President Fred P. Hochberg said his agency has sharply increased its amount of loans and credit guarantees from 2008, and is expanding its reach. “The bank will continue to use all of its resources to support the president’s goal by reaching out to even more U.S. businesses, especially small businesses, to help them export,” he said.

The Commerce Department is huddling with executives of major exporting companies, and spurring more small companies to tap into foreign markets. Legislation in the Senate could carve out a major loan pool for small companies hampered by a tight private credit market.

Doubling the level of exports in five years is a tall order, and freight specialists say it will take a heavy focus on multimodal construction projects that improve efficiencies for heartland shippers.

But the Department of Transportation already is moving in that direction. Its proposed strategic plan emphasizes port and intermodal connector improvements to boost trade flows, and exports in particular. And, when deciding on grants for programs such as CREATE, the DOT is taking into account other national goals that each project can support.

Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.