Shippers to push for freight policy during White House visit
Representatives for several major U.S. retailers plan to tell members of President Bush’s domestic policy staff during a White House meeting today that congestion throughout the domestic transportation system is having a negative impact on business, and to press for development of a national intermodal freight policy to comprehensively deal with the problem.
The delegation will include top logistics executives from Macy’s, Nike, Dell, Toys 'R' Us and Target, said Ron Widdows, chief executive of liner carrier APL, who helped organize the visit as part of a year-long awareness campaign to draw attention to port, rail, aviation and highway infrastructure problems that are slowing the movement of goods to store shelves as import volumes continue to rise to record levels.
Top officials from the Department of Transportation, including Under Secretary for Policy Jeffrey N. Shane, are also expected to attend the meeting. Shane has embraced Widdows’ effort and, along with Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, has seriously committed to make freight and the capacity of the intermodal supply chain a priority. Shippers want the White House to get behind the effort so that the department has the authority to make real decisions and design funding alternatives.
Creation of a national freight policy “is as important as anything I’ve ever seen,” Shane said Tuesday in Washington at the annual conference of the Transportation Research Board, a federally chartered body that promotes research and provides advice on transportation issues.
Last year, at Shane’s request, the TRB formed a roundtable of industry experts to help the DOT learn about supply chain logistics and help shape a conceptual framework for a national freight policy and related investment decisions.
During his speech, Shane shared the broad outlines of a tentative national freight policy designed to relieve congestion, increase capacity and provide environmental benefits.
The department’s top freight objectives, he said, are to:
* Improve transportation network performance.
* Add physical capacity “where it makes sense.”
* Use pricing methods to a much greater degree to reduce congestion by calibrating freight system costs with demand.
* Remove or reduce statutory, regulatory or institutional barriers to freight transportation performance.
* Address emerging transport needs.
* Maximize the safety and security of the freight transport system.
* Mitigate the health and environmental impacts of freight transport.
“This is a framework for a national freight policy,” not a top-down federal freight policy, Shane said. The plan stresses the importance of investment from a variety of sources, and emphasizes the use of public-private collaboration on freight projects at the local, state and national level.
DOT officials have made it clear during the past year that they want to move away from a transportation model simply based on the federal government doling out grants to states for highway and other projects.
States will pick up more responsibility for highway building in the future, while federal government oversight will comprise developing technology standards and ensuring that infrastructure projects are developed in an integrated way, acting Federal Highway Administrator Richard Capka said Monday.
The Bush administration is pushing the concept that highways should be treated as public utilities that are paid for by direct user fees. Among the proposed solutions are dedicated truck lanes and high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.
Many large shippers support the federal government playing a bigger role in coordinating the development of regional and national transportation networks.
Widdows has marshaled his customers to make the case for transportation planning and investment because they are the end users of transportation and are economically impacted when their goods are delayed. The strategy is designed to get the attention of members of Congress and the administration who may have tuned out the pleas of motor carriers and others because they have a vested interest in transportation funding.
“Our customers are lined up 50 deep wanting to engage in the process,” Widdows said, adding that he is disappointed by the lack of involvement by the rest of the liner industry.
The biggest challenge is overcoming a lack of understanding about the issue in Congress, industry and government officials on a panel said. Congressional indifference is a function of the fact “the supply chain is not the most visible part of the transportation problem that the average voter” experiences, Shane said.
The delegation at the White House will comprise senior logistics executives rather than chief executive officers, because they are in the best position to educate government officials about the affects of congestion on the supply chain, Widdows said. Possible groups the retailers may meet include the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisors, as well as members of the Office of Management and Budget.
“What really makes the difference is the quality of the information. It’s the logistics guys who really make the case,” Shane said.
The top White House advisors typically are economists “who are hungry for hard statistics and information,” Shane said after the presentation. “They don’t want generalities, so they need people who are developing the numbers” and can answer questions.
“It’s not about status,” he said.