2 Key Freight Elements in House Transportation Bill

Alameda Corridor, a key national freight project funded in part through the PNRS program

H.R. 7, the House’s transportation proposal, has a number of freight sections.  We asked Leslie Blakey, who manages the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), to weigh in on the bill’s freight provisions.  Blakey reviewed the Senate bill freight provisions earlier in Senate Bill Will Improve Freight Mobility and Economic Vitality.  The Coalition was established in 2001 and is dedicated to the expansion and modernization of America’s freight and goods movement infrastructure. See bottom for more about CAGTC and Ms. Blakey.

Goods Movement Must be Addressed at National Level

By Leslie Blakey, Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors

Never before this Congress has the term “freight” appeared with such frequency in legislation. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have focused their respective lenses on the issue, albeit with very different action plans.

The surface transportation plan currently being proposed by the House of Representatives represents a departure from programming established during the Eisenhower era. While some of these modifications, such as program consolidation and process streamlining, stand to improve the system, the new movement to relinquish federal responsibilities to states stands to fracture a comprehensive system of interconnectivity.

Our goods movement system is not confined to politically-designated state borders – rather, it is an expansive, holistic system that stretches from coast-to-coast and across international boundaries. Along our commerce system, bridges serve to connect states, single freight hubs provide service to several states in a 5 mile radius, and roads weave back-and-forth over state lines.

One key provision in the House’s multi-year transportation proposal, H.R. 7, encourages states to compose their own freight advisory committees and develop their own freight plans. Emphasis on the need for freight planning is a welcomed notion; however, planning for our national freight system must take place at the federal level.

The state-level freight advisory committees encouraged in H.R. 7 would be composed of public and private sector stakeholders. Meaning, organizations operating nationally (such as rail lines, trucking companies, and large-scale shippers) would need to designate 50 employees to participate in these freight advisory committees. Not only does this arduous approach fail to address goods movement from a national level, it also fails to address our nation’s many regional freight issues.

We encourage the House to consider revising this approach to instead form one freight advisory board, existing at the national level. This type of national advisory board would certainly facilitate important conversations between the public and private sector stakeholders, encouraging information and data sharing that can assist in future planning.

It is of concern that the burden placed on each state to develop an individual freight plan will not yield equal benefit.  There is no clear mechanism to patch together these various plans and incorporate them into the national freight policy called for in H.R. 7. If, for example, all of the goods arriving in California’s ports remained in California, a decentralized approach to goods movement planning might be sufficient. Instead, the majority of goods arriving in California are dispersed via varying modes to the other 49 states in this union.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) has put forward an amendment to strengthen freight planning at the national level through the creation of an Office of Freight Planning and Development, to be led by an Assistant Secretary for Freight Planning and Development. These two institutional advances will improve and coordinate policy within the federal government and among the states. This amendment represents an opportunity to elevate the existing Office of Freight Management and Operations currently housed within the Federal Highway Administration, allowing for consolidation and process streamlining among the various modal agencies that should, but often don’t work together on multimodal projects. Further, this office will be tasked with supporting the Secretary in the development of the National Freight Transportation Strategic Plan, which is called for in H.R. 7. Providing for an office dedicated to the nation’s multimodal goods movement is a vital and long overdue step forward.

A second key element is a bi-partisan amendment to restore SAFETEA-LU’s Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS) program. This provision, proposed by Rep. Nadler (D-NY), McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Blumenauer (D-OR), Schmidt (R-OH), Davis (R-KY), Chabot (R-OH), Lipinski (D-IL), and Smith (D-WA) is not yet in the bill. PNRS are typically very large, frequently multimodal and sometimes stretch across multiple jurisdictional boundaries, including state lines. These projects have various beneficiaries across the nation and serve large geographic areas, as opposed to purely local users who can band together to see a project put in place. The PNRS program, modeled after Transit New Starts, was designed to ensure these important projects, which have difficulty qualifying for formula funds, can compete to meet objective qualifying criteria and show measurable public benefit.

In many cases, PNRS projects can be largely paid for with private participation and other financing tools, leaving only a gap that can make or break the finance package. The PNRS amendment language incentivizes this structure and provides for grants to fill that gap, getting a high economic return on the federal investment dollar. Like the New Starts program, a full-funding grant agreement also allows projects more financing options as well as joint decision making on project selection between the Executive and Legislative branches.

While PNRS was earmarked during the bill conference of SAFETEA-LU, reinstating PNRS this Congress would allow the program to work as it was originally intended. Many large-scale projects vital to freight movement do not qualify for traditional formula funding and therefore will not be provided for under H.R. 7 – PNRS gives such projects an opportunity to receive funding.

Our national goods movement system is vital to moving the nation’s commerce and supporting our economy. The system demands proper planning and investment to keep freight movement expeditious and cost-effective.

We look forward to continuing this important conversation with Congress throughout the reauthorization and hope that the result will be an improved national freight network that, through continuous planning and investment, fosters our economy for years to come.

CAGTC was established in 2001 and is dedicated to the expansion and modernization of America’s freight and goods movement infrastructure. The coalition consists of over 60 public and private organizations, including leading associations, motor carriers, railroads, ports, distribution centers, engineering firms, public authorities and state agencies. CAGTC’s sustained efforts in policy development, education, media relations, and marketing have propelled freight infrastructure needs to a priority level in federal, regional, state and local government agendas. Leslie is often called upon to speak throughout the U.S. and internationally to a wide array of organizations whose interest ranges from the political, as in prospects for comprehensive legislation, to the technical, such as regulatory barriers to U.S. exports.

Leslie Blakey is a principal in the Washington DC public affairs firm of Blakey & Agnew, LLC, a public affairs firm specializing in transportation with expertise in developing communications strategies that make complex regulatory, engineering, and legal issues more easily understood by broader audiences.

A number of Leslie’s clients provide her with a penetrating perspective on transportation, commerce and the environment. Since 2008, she has been a senior counselor to The Conference Board’s Center for Sustainability, working directly with Fortune 500 companies committed to sustainable business practices, corporate social responsibility and a global environmental agenda. For Woolpert, an international engineering firm, she manages an advisory board of national aviation experts to assist the firm in growing its airport and aviation work centered on geospatial information systems. And for the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, Leslie is assisting the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2) with a two-year rollout of more than 100 research projects that will transform existing approaches to planning, developing and modernizing our national transportation systems.

Leslie also served as a member of the Obama Campaign Transportation Advisory Committee.


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