Washington Notebook: House freight study – where’s the beef?
A House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee panel specially created early this year to come up with recommendations for improving the nation’s freight transportation system released its final report on Oct. 29.
The panel’s work is supposed to help Chairman Bill Shuster and his colleagues develop a surface transportation reauthorization bill next year that includes support for freight infrastructure, which has historically been a neglected component of U.S. transportation policy.
The 11-member panel held six public hearings, three informal roundtables, visited four port districts and met with industry stakeholders to learn about the intermodal challenges facing goods movement in the United States.
Unfortunately, the report doesn’t provide any new ideas or make any hard-hitting recommendations. During a private conversation, one of my colleagues at a competing publication rightly characterized the panel’s work product as a “book report,” because it essentially summarizes the capabilities of today’s ports, railroads, airports, highways and waterways.
Haven’t we been here before? Six years ago, two congressionally commissioned panels of experts came up with exhaustive reports laying out a way to correct the nation’s underinvestment in highway and rail infrastructure, including the creation of a new freight program. Some of the suggestions for streamlining project deployment and consolidating Department of Transportation programs were included in last year’s two-year funding legislation. But the MAP-21 law did nothing to address the shortfall in funding.
The lawmakers stayed away from any controversial topics, but those are the very areas where recommendations are needed to bridge existing differences. One of the panel’s mandates was to identify financing options for transportation projects that improve freight mobility. The panel dutifully lists a bunch of freight-based financing options – most of them pulled from the two congressional reports – but doesn’t take a position on which ones to adopt. In fact, it punts to the Obama administration to come back with its own recommendations.
There is also no mention of increasing truck size and weight, a topic now under study by the DOT and one that pits trucking interests, safety advocates and railroads against one another.
The recommendations also lagged the House’s passage the previous week of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
The prescriptions in the report are very generic.
On its surface, then, this report is underwhelming. But if one looks below the surface at the complicated politics of getting a deal done, especially in today’s brutish Washington environment where lawmakers are locked in a death struggle over spending, the report may have proved a useful exercise.
First, the findings were unanimously supported by a bi-partisan group of lawmakers. Second, lawmakers genuinely seemed to agree about the importance of rehabilitating the freight network and the relationships they made during the past year may help when it comes time to negotiate the tough details of the surface transportation bill. These lawmakers, which included liberal Democrats such as Rep. Janice Hahn of California and freshman Republican Markwayne Mullin, an ultra-conservative, small-government proponent from Oklahoma, could represent the leading edge that is able to convince their colleagues to support a wide-ranging compromise funding and financing package when it’s time to vote.
Finally, as leaders of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors point out, the panel did not rule out greater use of user fees to raise necessary funds and by reaching out to the administration it is opening the door to its ideas.
Let’s hope it plays it out that way.
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