U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Tuesday listed a couple of small-bore ways to address needed infrastructure problems, but refrained from advancing any broader policy prescriptions or vision for rehabilitating and expanding the transportation system to support future population and economic growth.
Foxx, who has only been in office for 10 weeks, never mentioned freight movement in his remarks, but at the same event a Federal Railroad Administration official said the Obama administration wants to invest more in freight rail.
Speaking at the Women in Transportation International policy symposium in Washington, Foxx suggested that arresting the deterioration of roads, bridges and other assets and adding capacity can be accomplished in part through efficiency gains and innovation.
He pointed to the construction industry as an opportunity for cost savings, saying it has experienced "some of the lowest productivity gains of any sector in our economy" on a per worker basis. Improvements can also be made that don't cost a lot of money, such as using warm-mix asphalt to pave roads, the former Charlotte mayor said.
The new process doesn't require as much energy to heat up the asphalt, is more durable and can save $3.5 billion over the next eight years, he claimed.
In response to an audience question, Foxx said his top priorities are to maintain the safety and performance of the U.S. transportation system while the Department of Transportation deals with automatic budget cuts triggered by sequestration, generating transportation plans that prioritize transportation needs over long horizons, and making sure urban and rural communities are better connected to the outside world.
"We should paint a word picture for the American people. What should our highway system look like in 30 years?," as well as other modes, he said. "I'd like to push hard for a long-term transportation plan that can then be the basis for tracking ourselves year to year and how reauthorization bills are built."
Last year's MAP-21 legislation, which expires 12 months from now, did for the first time require the DOT to develop a national transportation plan and a national strategic freight plan.
Foxx on Monday accompanied Vice President Joseph Biden on tours of the ports of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.
During a panel session, Karen Hedlund, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said DOT has been providing technical advice to relevant committees in Congress on what it would like to see in a five-year reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, when it comes up for debate in 2014. The administration recommendations will include support for a national, high-performance rail program for passenger and freight rail with a focus on safety, infrastructure improvements and strong planning.
Planning is key for moving toward "a more holistic approach to rail development that better reflects our complex interrelated rail system," including high-speed passenger rail, Hedlund said.
Officials recognize there needs to be a greater public role in the freight rail system to mitigate community impacts such as grade crossings that cause congestion, air pollution and unsafe conditions where vehicular traffic intersects with rail lines, she elaborated to a reporter afterwards, pointing to CREATE in Chicago as an example of projects that deserve greater public funding.
CREATE is a public-private partnership among freight railroads and various levels of governments to untangle the spaghetti mix of rail lines and roads that make it difficult for eastern and western railroads to interchange equipment, forces trains to run slower and causes traffic delays.
"What we'd like to see is a dedicated source of money for rail" infrastructure similar to the Highway Trust Fund, which is primarily funded through fuel taxes, Hedlund said.
"Then we wouldn't have to go hat-in-hand to Congress for money out of the general fund" at appropriation time, she said, adding DOT will work with Congress to identify a funding source.
Freight stakeholders have been pushing for Congress to include a new trust fund dedicated to freight infrastructure in the next surface transportation legislation. The trust fund would cover areas beyond freight rail, such as ports, connector roads to logistics facilities, and land-border checkpoints. - Eric Kulisch