Marine Transportation System

Now They’ve Gone and Done It!

In Congress, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on July 3, 2012 at 9:54 am

Washington, which is to say Congress, got it done.  Really.

The “it” is the surface transportation authorization legislation that sets the programs for highway, transit and related infrastructure–hereafter referred to as MAP-21 (“Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” for those of you who feel a need to know.)  The bill, H.R. 4348, won bipartisan approval of both chambers by large margins.

The roughly $52 billion per year measure’s importance can be gauged by the fact that the soon-to-be law determines how much the States and transportation agencies will receive for system maintenance and improvements. It also sets national policy for everything from truck size and weight to reducing transportation emissions to traffic safety.

MAP-21 is the successor to the 2005 SAFETEA-LU (no, I won’t spell that one out for you). Arguably, MAP-21 is a significant successor. It includes some reforms recommended by national commissions that were formed–and informed–by the earmark-excessive SAFETEA-LU.  It also contains provisions on two areas of interest that are, in their own way, groundbreaking: freight and channel maintenance.

Back in 2005 once the dust had cleared following the House and Senate negotiations that produced SAFETEA-LU the freight interest groups were surprised to see the main freight infrastructure funding provision laying there in the dust.  It had been cut out.  It took the Freight Stakeholders Coalition–ports, railroads, shippers, truckers, you name it–no time to regroup and work to get–seven years later–freight policy provisions in the next bill.

Today there is reason for celebration. While a $2 billion National Freight Program didn’t survive the conference some freight provisions were adopted in the final version that is going to the White House for signature.

  • A National Freight Policy is established with goals to improve the “condition and performance of the national freight network.”
  • A National Freight Network consisting of critical freight routes and other routes on the interstate system and in rural areas, is to be designated by the Transportation Secretary.
  • USDOT is to prepare a National Freight Strategic Plan in consultation with States and public and private stakeholders. The plan is to identify freight gateways and corridors (and their bottlenecks), future freight volumes, and needed improvements.
  • USDOT is to report on the condition of the freight network and improve data and planning tools to support outcome-oriented infrastructure investments.
  • States are encouraged to develop freight plans and organize freight advisory committees to give stakeholders input into freight project planning.
  • In lieu of a separate allocation of funds for freight projects the bill offers an incentive for freight project funding by allowing the Secretary to reduce the non-Federal share of a project’s cost if it meets criteria for improving freight mobility.
  • The bill also increases to $1 billion (over a five-fold increase) the popular TIFIA credit assistance program and authorizes $500 million for Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS).  Both of those have been particularly helpful in financing large freight related projects.

The other noteworthy provision in MAP-21 isn’t nearly as significant in dollar and program terms but deserves a mention.  In this so-called “highway bill” is a provision bringing attention to the underfunding of port channels and the continuing Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund problem.  The best that the House and Senate sponsors of the RAMP Act legislation could achieve was to get “sense of Congress” language that reminds the White House and Congress that the full measure of HMTF resources should be spent each year to keep U.S. port channels at their most efficient.

It was much less than the RAMP Act supporters (I among them) wanted but there is a legitimately positive way to spin it.  For the first time Congress–in the surface transportation bill, no less–acknowledges the need to make full use of the user-paid revenues to maintain the underwater highways for shipping. It is a stepping stone to greater funding as I suggested a few months back after the House Appropriations Committee approved a record $1 billion to be spent from the HMTF.

Let’s be clear. MAP-21 is not all that it should have been. For starters, it is only a 2-year bill compared to its 4- and 5-year antecedents. Why? Because the House, Senate and Administration conspired to avoid the crucial issue of new revenue as if it were a tick infested bed of poison ivy. Yes, that is a kicked can that you see down the road (to double down on metaphors). The corollary to that is the inability of the legislation to afford the demonstrable need for greater funding for infrastructure  improvements and maintenance.   The funding in the bill is half of what it should be.

The surface transportation bill also is not as multimodal as it should be. It is time for rail and domestic marine freight transportation to be folded into the nominally intermodal surface transportation policy. Commuter rail is. Passenger ferries are. The adage “freight doesn’t vote” continues to apply.

With the exception of rail freight project eligibility for TIFIA and PNRS financing the program remains a predominantly highway one. It’s time we move to a different policy paradigm that addresses transportation infrastructure needs in modally neutral terms.

But let’s not spend too much time lamenting what should be but isn’t. The legislators returned to their home offices over the Independence Day recess able to say they got something worthwhile done on a bipartisan basis.  Imagine that.   Pbea

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