Momentum building for national freight policy, Shane says
Lacking the discretionary spending authority for freight infrastructure improvements, the U.S. Department of Transportation will use its leadership position to promote policies, incentives and financing schemes that will enable local governments and the private sector to upgrade and expand intermodal connectors, Undersecretary for Policy Jeffrey Shane said.
The multi-year surface transportation spending bill passed by Congress last year provides some money for freight projects. But the DOT is prevented from targeting those funds to high priority chokepoints because most of it was earmarked by members of Congress for specific activities.
Despite that setback, the DOT is building on the draft national freight policy framework it unveiled in January to coordinate planning, investment and regulation for freight transportation, Shane said at the Spring conference of the American Association of Port Authorities in Washington Tuesday.
The department is treating goods movement more urgently than in the past because shippers, the users of the transport system, have stood up and said congestion in the transportation network is beginning to undermine their businesses and the economy, Shane said.
Policymakers intuitively understood the importance of efficient transport lanes, “but it is being said to the federal government in a way that has never been said before and with great clarity,” Shane said.
During the past 15 months groups of shippers have huddled with DOT and White House officials to explain what they expect from an efficient transport system.
Shane said government officials haven’t done a good job of getting the public to understand the importance of logistics and get lawmakers to make freight projects a priority.
“Maybe part of the problem is we tend to preach to the choir” at transportation industry conferences,” he said. “Maybe we need to be more active in getting out to educate the public” that logistics is one of the big growth sectors of the U.S. economy with many good-paying jobs.
Possible solutions identified by DOT to help finance freight projects are greater use of low-interest federal loan programs such as the Transportation Infrastructure and Finance Act (TIFIA) and the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program, as well as state infrastructure banks and private activity bonds, Shane said.
Railroads invest about $2.6 billion per year to maintain their tracks and fleets, but are having a hard time expanding capacity to meet the demand generated by the boom in international trade. Edward Hamberger, president of the American Association of Railroads, said railroads are interested in investment tax credits to help them add railroad capacity.
The department would like to use TIFIA and RRIF funds to help build on-dock rail, truck gates and other intermodal improvements at ports, Shane said. The highway transportation bill expands the types of projects that are eligible for TIFIA credits.
He also applauded the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for considering user fees for each container transiting the port complex to help fund infrastructure improvements.