The Freight Stakeholders Coalition–a group of 18 or more organizations–spoke freight to power. But in today’s Washington, where the policy makers often wear policy blinders, will the Deciders (to use Dubya-speak) listen to the goods movement call for change?
Back in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU came out of the House-Senate conference cooker, the Stakeholders were dumbfounded to realize that the negotiators cut from the bill a key freight provision on which there had seemed to be agreement. It was a 2 percent set-aside funding requirement for freight related projects.
It didn’t take long for the Stakeholders to regroup, this time in sync with the 50+ State DOT leaders (AASHTO), and produce a 10-point paper making a collective case for goods movement policy. Still feeling the SAFETEA-LU sting years later the Stakeholders sent a letter to House and Senate conferees–the people tasked with coming up with a surface transportation bill to send to the President. The letter contains the 10-point paper and concludes:
Now more than ever, the needs of our goods movement network must be addressed as system use continues to grow in lockstep with America’s recovering economy. The inclusion of a national freight plan with supporting policies, strategy and funding will help ensure America’s international competitiveness, create jobs and bolster the U.S. economic recovery.
But will the conferees–who largely take their cue from a small number of party and committee leaders–get it done? As we learned from the sad SAFETEA-LU experience just because there are fairly substantial freight provisions in the MAP-21 Senate bill (S. 1813) doesn’t mean the final product will take goods movement seriously. Besides, the House-passed version (H.R. 4348) was a Plan B vehicle to get to conference with the Senate. It doesn’t have freight provisions. For that matter, the version that was reported from the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, but which failed to get to a House vote, H.R. 7, contains little in the way of substantive freight provisions.
Will the conferees get it done? Larry Ehl rightly has cause to ask a more basic question: Are Transportation Bill Negotiations on the Rocks? Ben Goldman also see bad news clues. Pessimists, which may include most who work around Washington these days, would observe that this particular Congress seems to want to get not much done. Some legislators–tea partiers especially–would proudly label that an achievement.
I still think it can get a bill done, however, despite a significant push by the private sector for strong freight provisions, one wonders what the House conferees will agree to. Moving on…
Days after sending their letter to the conferees the Stakeholders gave cheers for a senator’s letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.
In her letter of May 31, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) told Secretary LaHood to “tear down bureaucratic barriers and inefficiencies” in the modally stove-piped department by creating a freight-focused operation in the Office of the Secretary. The senator pointed to ways that her home state has realized benefits of “freight coordination, prioritization, and collaboration” between the public and private sectors.
Over the years Congress has been importuned to create a freight office, establish an assistant secretary post for goods movement, etc. But silly arguments about expanding government and creating new bureaucracy usually keeps those ideas from being given a serious hearing. The implementing agency of national transportation policy remains structured as if the modes rarely if ever meet.
But as we know, in the real world they are meeting with ever increasing frequency as the market seeks ever more efficient ways to getting the job done. On dock rail. Intermodal yards. Trains to airports. Boxes shuttled from trucks to ships to barges to trucks to rail to….
The senator’s letter speaks to the need for a “high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative.” * She reminded the Secretary he doesn’t have to wait for Congress to create a formal structure.
… I strongly encourage you to establish a high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative at the U.S. Department of Transportation using your existing administrative authority. If established, this initiative office should report directly to you, include a special assistant designated with specific responsibility for freight movement, and endeavor to improve federal freight policy, planning, and investment across all modes.
Or as one might say in Obama-speak: Yes, he can.
Secretary LaHood is leaving the Obama Administration later this year. Let this be his gift to his successor. He can set up a freight office down the hall from his own. He can start the process of directing the DOT stovepipes, which in truth do talk to each other about some freight objectives and the occasional project, to be even more intentional about it. He can ask his modal administrators and freight staff for their input on how best to get it done. But most of all he can make a serious effort–as serious as his pretty effective distracted driving campaign–to bring his department and government policy to where the mostly private sector freight innovators have been for a good long while. Pbea
* Kudos to the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors for its diligent efforts in advancing the freight message on Capitol Hill.