August 2010 | Commentary | In Perspective

Give Me An F… Give Me An R…

Tags: Transportation Infrastructure, Legislation, Public Policy, and Regulations

Who says politicians can’t spell “freight?” But, more importantly, can Senator Frank Lautenberg’s (D-NJ) FREIGHT Act of 2010 deliver on its promise?

The stated target of the Focusing Resources Economic Investment and Guidance to Help Transportation (FREIGHT) Act of 2010 is “investment in freight transportation projects that strengthen the economic competitiveness of the United States.” The act calls for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop a national freight policy to target these projects and other goals. That covers the Helping Transportation part, but does this bill have the power to get there?

One aspect of FREIGHT 2010 that has transportation groups excited is the establishment within the DOT of an Office of Freight Planning and Development, responsible for creating a national transportation policy. While it’s encouraging to see this commitment in the legislation, the federal government has not yet been able to deliver a coherent, actionable national transport policy that adequately addresses commercial needs. Let’s see if this provision makes it through to final law. Then let’s see who is appointed undersecretary to spearhead the freight policy.

That policy is intended to guide spending and development of important initiatives – very few of which are spelled out in the bill. The undersecretary will have two years to identify and deliver the policy’s specific goals. If Congress and the President act on this bill by the end of 2010, that makes even an optimistic estimate late 2012 or early 2013 before we will see that policy in place. Given the recent and continued economic volatility, that’s like running this economic engine another 100,000 miles when it’s already low on oil.

Let’s cut to the chase – economic investment. Where’s the money? It’s in “coalitions, partnerships, and other collaborative financing efforts necessary to ensure stable, reliable funding,” according to the bill. There is a federal share of grants for approved development, limited to 80 percent of the project’s net capital cost.

The good news, however, is that the bill focuses on some of the right things. For one, it says that freight policy should align with trade policy to help facilitate trade. To do this, it promotes completion of freight corridors and gateways. It will fund port development or improvement projects, multimodal terminal facility projects, land port-of-entry projects, freight rail improvement or capacity expansion projects, and an intelligent transportation system project that reduces congestion or improves safety. And, it calls for “an outcome-oriented, performance-based approach to evaluate proposed freight-related and other transportation projects.”

That accountability provision may minimize the more egregious attempts to add pork to the final bill. Further, provisions for safety and environmental improvements – such as a 10-percent reduction in freight-related fatalities by 2015 and a 40-percent cut in national freight transport-related carbon dioxide levels by 2030 – are already in the bill.

On the surface, Senator Lautenberg’s bill does appear to define freight transportation needs as distinct from general transportation issues. It keeps most specific decisions out of Congress and within the office of the Secretary of Transportation. It allows stakeholders to participate and to seek funding more directly.

But it’s a long way from the President’s pen. Here’s your chance to help define a transport policy that supports our need for better ports, intermodal facilities, and more. It’s time to start showing up – in letters, government office visits, and support for lobbyists. Don’t let your transport future be decided without you.