After six months of work, an ad hoc panel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday announced a series of recommendations for improving the nation's freight transportation system
, but despite the apparent lack of significant new ideas or direction on how to raise revenue for stressed infrastructure, members and outside freight advocates insisted the report was a positive step toward giving freight issues a seat at the legislative table.
Chairman Bill Shuster established the "Special Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation" to assess the condition of freight transportation and offer solutions that could be considered when the T&I Committee drafts legislation to reauthorize the 18-month MAP-21 surface transportation law that expires Sept. 30, 2014. Freight has traditionally been a stepchild in federal transportation policy because it doesn't neatly fit into the government's modal funding buckets, and many projects cross jurisdictional boundaries in line with multi-regional freight flows. States have not used much federal highway aid for freight-specific projects, and there is no stream of federal money dedicated for freight.
The panel held six public hearings, three informal roundtable discussions, toured freight facilities in Southern California' Memphis, Tenn.; New York/New Jersey; and Norfolk, Va., and numerous briefings with businesses groups and other interested parties to familiarize itself with the challenges facing goods movement.
Many of the panel's recommendations vary little from existing policy or long-standing industry proposals.
One suggestion by the panel's 11 lawmakers is for the secretary of transportation to establish a comprehensive national freight transportation policy and designate a primary multimodal freight network. The Department of Transportation, however, is already working to take inventory of the nation's highways and designate up to 30,000 miles of roadway as the primary freight network, as directed under MAP-21 in 2012. And Rep. Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat who is on the panel, early this year introduced the MOVE Freight Act to ensure that freight policy and planning cover all modes, not just highways.
The panel also called for "dedicated, sustainable" funding for multimodal freight projects with a regional or national impact through a competitive grant process. The Projects of National and Regional Significance program already exists. It was created in the 2005 SAFETEA-LU transportation legislation, but in the MAP-21 extension, it was reauthorized without any appropriations.
Other recommendations include:
- Ensure robust public investment in all modes of transportation on which freight movement relies, and incentivize additional private investment in freight transportation facilities, to maintain and improve the condition and performance of the freight transportation network.
- Promote and expedite the development and delivery of projects and activities that improve and facilitate the efficient movement of goods.
- Appropriate the full amount of funds annually collected from shippers in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and draw down the $7 billion balance in the fund in a careful manner to improve navigation channels for ports, as well as expand eligible uses for HMTF expenditures.
- Consider delaying the deadline for freight railroads to install Positive Train Control technology.
On the revenue side, the panel said Congress should direct the secretary of transportation to identify and recommend sustainable sources of revenue across all modes for infrastructure investment and that the House Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for appropriating money and setting tax policy, should review the recommendations with the T&I Committee to develop specific funding and revenue options for the next reauthorization bill.
Panel member Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the report includes a list of revenue options pulled from previous studies and that the hope is greater consensus on which mechanisms to pursue could be achieved by first letting the DOT and other cabinet secretaries choose the best ones. He and Chairman John Duncan reluctantly acknowledged to reporters that the report was simply designed to generate discussion and that more controversial revenue issues were left aside to get agreement on a common document.
The recommendations related to the Harbor Maintenance Tax lag last week's passage by the House of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which addresses the subject. The WRRDA bill would gradually increase the disbursement from the HMTF from 50 percent to 65 percent for its intended purpose of keeping navigation channels at their authorized depth and width. Each year through 2020, the percentage of the fund mandated to be used would edge up until 80 percent went to dredging, jetty repairs and related work.
Officers for the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC) insisted the report makes a "bold" contribution by signaling that Congress will give freight equal weight with highway funding, safety and transit in the next surface transportation bill and that lawmakers realize freight issues have to be dealt with on a multimodal basis.
CAGTC represents more than 60 public and private organizations with an interest in intermodal freight transportation.
Several lawmakers stressed at a press conference that the report recognizes how truck, rail, ocean, inland waterway and air modes are interconnected.
"Unlike many issues in Congress, freight is not a regional issue. Our freight cargo network serves every state, every community and, indeed, every household in America. As such, we all have an interest in seeing that network operate efficiently and support American competitiveness and American jobs," Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the T&I Committee, said. "We can't look at freight one way when it's on the back of a truck, another way when its riding the rails, and yet another way when it's on the deck of a ship."
On a conference call with reporters, CAGTC leaders pushed back against the notion that the special panel ducked the issue of how to pay for infrastructure improvements as available revenue declines and traffic increases.
The Highway Trust Fund is in crisis because user fees collected at the pump are declining with more fuel-efficient vehicles and changing driving habits, not too mention that fuel taxes have lost 40 percent of their purchasing power since last raised in 1993. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by the expiration of the $105 billion MAP-21 program, the Highway Trust Fund could be in the red and slow reimbursements to states for projects already committed to and completed. Since 2008, Congress has had to pump $54 billion into the trust fund from the Treasury to maintain transportation programs at current levels. But finding new sources of revenues was avoided by lawmakers in MAP-21 and continues to be the greatest source of potential conflict going forward at a time when members of both parties are reluctant to raise taxes.
The panel members were unanimous in their agreement that the federal government, for the first time, needs to raise revenues and distribute funds through a competitive freight program, such as Projects of Regional and National Significance, CAGTC Executive Director Leslie Blakey pointed out. Congress has never talked before about ensuring robust public investment in key freight corridors for all modes, she added.
And, she said, the report's language represents "a strong reversal" of the recent trend toward devolution whereby the federal government provides less direct funding to states and instead uses its limited resources to finance projects.
"No one said anything was off the table," regarding types of user fees or taxes that could be part of a solution, Blakey said.
Mort Downey, CAGTC's founding chairman, said the T&I panel advanced the ball on funding because it calls on Congress to ask the administration for its input on how to raise the necessary funds for infrastructure investment compared to years past when congressional leaders kept the executive branch at arms' length and fought over revenue along ideological lines.
Panel members repeatedly stressed that the report was completed in an extremely collegial and bipartisan manner, and Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., suggested that the relationships built during the process will help legislators during negotiations on next year's MAP-21 reauthorization.
Downey agreed that that the panel's consensus work and the 417-3 vote for the WRRDA bill create a positive feedback loop that lays the groundwork for legislators to work collaboratively on the surface transportation bill next year.
Sharon Neely, CAGTC's chairman and chief deputy executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, said CAGTC's job for the next six months is to make the public and lawmakers aware of the possible economic consequences of not completing a surface transportation bill on time next year.