Setting Outcomes

Setting Outcomes

In its new report on a “U.S. DOT Strategic Plan” for the next five years, the Obama administration says it is undertaking a “transformative U.S. transportation policy.” That’s putting it mildly.

In fact, it’s become clear this year that the administration is implementing a dramatic change in the way the United States considers and executes management of transportation on a scale the country has not seen since deregulation was enacted between 1978 and 1980.

It’s a transformation the transportation world seems to be awakening to only slowly even though it will guide not only the obvious area of basic infrastructure investment — that’s been clear in the way stimulus funding has been doled out — but more meaningfully in the broader way transportation programs and strategies are set, with far-reaching implications for carriers and shippers.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood signaled as much in his late-March interview with The Journal of Commerce when he outlined how DOT agencies have set decisions on stimulus spending, much of it in ways that, as he put it, “take trucks off roads.” For transport carriers, the change is deeper than simply trying to create what the administration calls “livable cities,” and broader than what one industry official recently suggested was a “war on trucking.”

In fact, the way transportation is considered in Washington is fundamentally changing, and the industry’s entrenched policy watchdogs and longtime insiders are finding themselves on an entirely different playing field. That’s because the administration appears to be putting real effort behind implementing changes outside the usual Washington structures.

Shortly after the DOT issued its strategic plan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture added a companion piece, a “Study of Rural Transportation Issues,” a report treating transport not as an end to itself but as a means to serving agriculture shippers. As the JOC’s John D. Boyd reports in this week’s issue, the USDA study flatly rejects the idea of decisions based on mode and instead looks at a “systems-based approach” to guide transportation planning.

In a Washington world built on political compartments, it’s critically important that this report came out of the USDA, suggesting a focus on supply chains as shippers see them and not necessarily as carriers would like to see them.

The DOT plan described more deeply how the administration will not merely break down modal silos — a standard Washington talking point — but in reality will ignore them as irrelevant to larger goals. “Our policies and individual investment decisions for highways, public transit, railroads, seaports, inland waterways and airports often lack an outcome-driven approach, and at times conflict with each other and with key national priorities,” the plan says.

Transportation policy, the strategic plan says, will be “focused on achieving strategic outcomes.” The outcomes — many of them familiar, such as those livable cities and a greater focus on intermodal connections — already are set, and the administration will manage the apparatus of Washington to achieve them.

For the transportation world, there could not be a more fundamental change in the way policies and priorities are set.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,