The Obama administration gets criticized a lot for not being business friendly, for not creating policies that help companies thrive. A lot of that perception is tied to the massive health-care overhaul law and the National Labor Relations Board's questionable efforts to make it easier for unions to organize workers. But a lot of it stems from ideologically conservative business leaders who demand data-driven processes to run their businesses but don't apply the same rigorous analysis when it comes to politics.
Despite the rhetoric, President Obama has done much to streamline government, make the decision-making process more transparent, engage the private sector and coordinate policymaking across departments -- all in the name of helping taxpayers get value for their dollar. The hours-of-service regulations for truckers that go into effect next year will add cost to some operations, but aren't the back breaker that many feared. Several months ago, the administration created a task force to improve inter-agency enforcement of export control laws and a center for pulling together information from multiple agencies into a shared platform to make it easier to review applications for export licenses.
A recent example of how the White House is listening to the business community and trying to create an environment for growth is last week's announcement that seven port infrastructure projects critical to the national economy, including five for harbor deepening, will undergo a fast-track review
and permitting process.
Expediting environmental reviews and feasibility studies has been a long-sought goal of freight industry advocates.
Less noticed in the news about accelerating the seven port projects was the establishment of a White House multi-agency task force on ports to develop a federal strategy and coordinated process for deciding which port projects should get the most attention and resources.
The idea of a task force was included earlier this year in the President's fiscal year 2013 budget request. Administration officials fully understand the link between modern transportation infrastructure and their goal to double exports by 2015. Bottlenecks for trucks, railroads, aircraft and ocean vessels translate into extra operating costs. In a fiercely competitive global market those with inefficient transportation systems risk getting bypassed by customers seeking goods at the lowest possible price.
A White House fact sheet on the new task force says targeting investments where they have the most bang for the buck is especially important given competition for handling international freight from ports in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean and to make room for mega-container ships that are expected to become more prevalent on the East Coast with the widening of the Panama Canal in 2015.
U.S. ports compete with one another for cargo and federal dollars, but freight transportation experts have argued that the nation needs a national strategy so the government can set priorities and coordinate projects for maximum national impact, rather than doling out funds in haphazard fashion.
The two-year surface transportation bill recently signed by the President instructs the Department of Transportation to develop a national freight policy and strategic plan for the first time. It also includes a chapter on water transportation.
The Task Force on Ports will examine port economic, environmental and community issues from a national, multi-modal perspective. Instead of focusing on ports in isolation, the strategy team will develop a holistic plan that includes enhancing highways and railroads that carry goods to and from ports.
Task force is comprised of senior officials from:
- National Economic Council;
- Office of Management and Budget;
- Department of Army, Corps of Engineers;
- Department of Commerce;
- Department of Homeland Security;
- Department of Transportation;
- Department of Treasury;
- Council of Economic Advisors;
- Council on Environmental Quality;
- Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
The White House is giving unprecedented attention to ports, a sector of the economy that has essentially been ignored by Washington for decades. For starters, the Obama administration created TIGER grants in the 2009 stimulus bill and has continued the program with the help of Congress. The program started with $1.6 billion and three subsequent rounds have each distributed $500 million. It gives the federal government for the first time the ability to direct some money to projects it feels are regionally or nationally significant, or have multi-modal aspects, instead of the leaving all decisions in the hands of state and local officials through the normal transfer of highway aid. Ports and freight rail have been among the beneficiaries, although the primary trade association for port authorities says ports deserve double their share.
The 2012 awards included seven port projects totaling $68 million to improve freight movement. In total, the DOT has awarded $353 million to 25 port related infrastructure projects.
The Obama administration has already moved to improve coordination between agencies with port-related responsibilities. The Department of Transportation, for example, now extensively consults with the Army Corps of Engineers when making decisions on which applications to approve for its popular TIGER discretionary grant program. Feedback from the departments of Commerce and Homeland Security is also sought.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has developed a system that provides real-time observations of tides and currents, weather forecasts and other mapping information to vessels heading in and out of ports. The PORTS system will be installed at 22 ports by the end of the year.
Last year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood established a new Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council consisting of 29 members from local government, industry, labor, and the environmental movement to develop recommendations on issues such as marine highway projects and port infrastructure development. - Eric Kulisch