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Freight wins big in federal infrastructure package

( Photo: FW Staff Photographer )

The Trump administration doled out a record $1.5 billion in an annual infrastructure funding program that also saw the largest-ever percentage of the money awarded to freight projects.

The grants, announced on Dec. 11, were distributed through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program, created in 2009 under the Obama administration (when they were called TIGER grants) to support road, rail, port, and transit projects, along with technology initiatives that support them.

The Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, a Washington, DC, freight infrastructure lobbying group, noted that this year’s funding level was not only three times higher than the typical level of $500 million, but freight infrastructure – as opposed to projects aimed at passengers or pedestrians – took a record 66% of the entire package, beating out last year’s 56% that was allocated for freight.

“Competitive grant programs provide a funding opportunity for projects that are difficult to fund or do not qualify through traditional funding programs due to their complexity, size, or cost,” said CAGTC executive director Elaine Nessle in a statement.

“These programs, such as BUILD, provide an invaluable tool for critical freight infrastructure projects, which are often large in scale, crossing multiple jurisdictions and modes. We applaud Congress’ recognition of these important programs by significantly increasing the program’s funding in FY18 and USDOT’s commitment to making vital freight investments.”

The trucking sector should benefit from millions of dollars dedicated for highway grade separations, road upgrades, and bridge expansion.

Of particular note is a $20 million grant to widen the Calexico East Port of Entry Bridge, an international border crossing between Southern California and Mexico. Adding to additional northbound commercial truck lanes will address a severe congestion chokepoint for international freight where backed up idling trucks wait for long periods before crossing.

Rail projects include $5.7 million for rehabilitating a state-owned short-line railroad to benefit agribusiness movement. “Agriculture is a vital economic driver in eastern Washington and a viable rail system to transport their products allows growers to remain competitive in the global marketplace,” commented Washington State Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar.

The Maryland Port Administration which is part of a public-private partnership with port operator Ports America, is using its $6.6 million to add a second berth at its Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore with a 50-foot draft capable of serving the largest container vessels.

The Trump administration’s focus on rural infrastructure projects in this year’s round of funding was a concerted effort to “re-balance” underinvestment in rural communities during the past decade, according to DOT, which pointed out that 62 of the 91 projects were awarded to rural grant applications.

But CAGTC would like to see less attention paid to delineating between urban and rural freight projects, and instead focus on freight infrastructure most worthy of attention and expansion. Nessle is hoping there’s a good chance of that happening with the priority Democrats are giving to infrastructure after winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the mid-term elections.

“That’s not to say rural projects are less important than those in urban areas, but right now there seems to be some disparity in the investment decisions being made,” she said. “So if there is an infrastructure bill that moves forward next year, we would like to see parity restored.”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.