Port of Charleston, S.C.--Wikipedia photo

A national policy for freight--one that recognizes the multi-modal and increasingly globalized nature of goods movement and accordingly directs federal spending based on rigorous and defensible criteria--is one of those classic goo-goo initiatives that everyone seems to want, but isn’t sexy enough to make it past the “Hey, that’s a good idea!” stage. Twice in the past year, Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have introduced the FREIGHT Act, which would create an Office of Freight Planning and Development within the Department of Transportation and charge it with creating a national goods movement strategy, but neither attempt has made it out of committee purgatory.

In the tradition of meager talk and near-absent action, the outline for the proposed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) legislation, the Senate’s proposal for the long-overdue transportation reauthorization bill, contains a single, substance-free bullet point about freight--and only mentions the highway mode, despite the decreasing attractiveness of trucking for long-distance shipping. While the outline emerged from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), which technically only has jurisdiction over highways, such a narrow approach makes no sense for what will ultimately become a comprehensive surface transportation authorization bill. Additionally, despite Lautenberg’s longstanding presence on the committee, the outline makes no reference to the FREIGHT Act. Meanwhile, in the prepared remarks provided by the seven witnesses in advance of the recent EPW hearing on the bill, only those of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Deron Lovaas contain any serious policy prescriptions surrounding goods movement. (By contrast, Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley’s remarks contain an entire paragraph deriding Complete Streets and bicycle and pedestrian facilities as “fringe.”) During the Q&A portion of the hearing, no speaker went beyond bland platitudes about “vital freight corridors” and “collapsing infrastructure.” At this critical juncture, when the need to maximize the leverage of federal investment in projects to increase the nation’s economic output should be apparent, the EPW Committee’s lack of specificity about freight planning is deeply unfortunate.

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed published May 23, the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program's Rob Puentes provided an example of the damaging effects of going without a national freight plan. In 2007, the Georgia and South Carolina state port authorities, knowing that neither Savannah nor Charleston could accommodate the gigantic “post-Panamax” container ships that will transit the newly expanded Panama Canal beginning in 2014, decided to pool their efforts and develop a joint terminal at the mouth of the Savannah River in Jasper County, SC. After the governors who approved the deal left office, however, it collapsed. The Jasper Ocean Terminal is essentially moribund, while the congressional delegations from the two states have sought competing earmarks for dredging of Charleston and Savannah. Even if no earmarks come in, though, standard formulas would mean that both dredging projects could get federal funding. This is not a productive use of taxpayer dollars.

Last Monday at Brookings’ neighbor the Carnegie Endowment, a trio of distinguished Washington emeriti--Sen. Bill Bradley, Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and Comptroller General David Walker--presented their new plan for American transportation finance, Road to Recovery: Transforming America’s Transportation. During the Q&A period, a commenter affiliated with the University of Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute referred to the “healthy competition” between Savannah and Charleston. In reality, the biggest competition is often between congresspersons, often of the same party, over who has more influence and can thus get a bigger earmark for their respective port project. There is no reason for federal dollars to go toward wasteful, duplicative projects that will only redistribute economic activity from one state to another, rather than creating net gains in the efficiency of the goods movement system.

One way forward would be for MAP-21 to adopt the language of the FREIGHT Act, giving the U.S. DOT real power to allocate funds to those goods movement projects with the greatest net benefit to the economy, regardless of mode or political expediency. An even better way would be to create a National Infrastructure Bank as the primary funding mechanism for transportation projects of national interest--especially goods movement projects that can generate steady cash flow from user fees. If MAP-21 brings neither of these to pass, it will be a badly missed opportunity.