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Carrier, Shipper Interests Push Federal Freight Policy

September 9, 2014

By Oliver Patton

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Photo: Evan Lockridge
Photo: Evan Lockridge

Freight interests are staking ground for the next highway program, asserting the need for sustainable funding, systematic planning and improved efficiency.

The Freight Stakeholders Coalition, representing 18 carrier and shipper organizations including American Trucking Associations, published a 9-point platform for the upcoming debate over reauthorization of the program.

“We are committed to the modernization of our nation’s freight transportation system,” the coalition said. “It must accommodate projected growth in manufacturing and trade or risk the U.S. being surpassed by foreign competitors.”

These are familiar themes that freight interests have sounded repeatedly over the past several years, most recently during House discussions of freight policy.

Last October a bipartisan Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation recommended that Congress adopt a comprehensive, multimodal approach to freight transportation with robust, sustainable funding from public and private sources.

The congressional panel dodged the key issue of how to pay for its recommendations, just as Congress and the administration have dodged and postponed the funding question for transportation in general.

The highway program is authorized through next May under a short-term funding bill passed in July. Congress has done considerable work on policy issues but has not demonstrated the political resolve to answer the funding question, and it is not at all clear that it will summon that resolve by next May.

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, promised last summer that he would hold a hearing on highway finance this month. So far the hearing has not been scheduled but a committee staff member said it still might be.

The coalition’s list begins with a call for sustainable funding for the highway program.

“It is broadly acknowledged and understood that the current federal revenue sources of funding supporting highway, transit, rail and safety programs are insufficient to meet the nation’s current needs,” the coalition said.

It also wants dedicated funds for freight, specifically, and for the current federal program to support projects of national and regional significance.

In addition, the next highway bill should build on reforms begun in the current bill, MAP-21, that expedite projects while protecting the environment, the coalition said.

Also on the list: establish a multi-modal freight office at the top level of the Department of Transportation; support multi-state freight corridor planning; and support freight mobility projects.

And the coalition called for expanded freight planning by states and local governments, and support for increased operational and environmental efficiency.

Among the members of the coalition, besides ATA, are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Intermodal Association of North America, the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Industrial Transportation League.

Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has launched a DOT effort to look over a 30-year horizon for transportation.

He believes the current conversation is too focused on the near term, he told Politico this week. Policy makers should be looking at the next 30 years, he said.

In a webinar on freight planning Monday, DOT officials listed the long-term trends that will shape transportation needs over the next several decades.

As everyone agrees, the items at the top of DOT list are funding and the expected decline in infrastructure quality.

But there are other large forces at work. The population could grow as much as 40% by 2050, and it will get older. People will migrate to cities, and the mega regions formed by clusters of cities will grow.

These developments will put new pressure on freight transportation as well as transit, as will changes in energy economics and environmental concerns.

Foxx said the challenge for freight planners will be to create an integrated national system out of the network that has been built one state at a time.

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