|Behind the Wheel
vice president of government relations and public affairs, Con-way Inc.
During the past 20 years, the concept of a national freight network in the United States has been the subject of much discussion and debate. It is well recognized that we face both challenges and opportunities in creating a more efficient and sustainable freight network — one that will be able to handle the 19 percent increase in freight volume expected in the next 10 years and much more beyond.
On July 6 of this year, Congress passed the most recent surface transportation bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). A key provision is the establishment of the U.S. Transportation Department’s Freight Policy Council. I was recently privileged to serve as a panelist at the DOT’s first Freight Stakeholder’s Roundtable. This event was designed to begin the process of gathering stakeholder input in three areas: (1) Measuring the condition and performance of the freight system; (2) State freight planning; and (3) Identifying elements of a national freight strategic plan. There was no shortage of ideas and, as is often the case, due to the politics of competing interests the challenge will be in transforming the council’s findings into actionable public policies.
To add context to the current freight dialogue, we need to take a trip down memory lane. Twenty years ago, Congress took a major step into the freight world by passing the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). ISTEA did two things that are still framing the debate today. The “I”, of course, was for “intermodal” and ISTEA set the course for a continuing quest toward improving intermodal connections, particularly at major seaports. It was the first substantial transportation bill designed to facilitate the efficiency and expansion of intermodal freight, and it began to address the fundamental infrastructure needs of intermodal freight bottlenecks. The second item still framing federal transportation policy from ISTEA is the truck size and weight freeze that restricted more efficient truck/trailer combinations on the national highway network to the limits that existed at the time.
So, for 20 years, the legacy of ISTEA has been a continuing fascination with intermodal as the solution to all freight ills (often at the expense of domestic highway freight) and a cap on our ability to increase truck productivity. That narrow scope has limited the nation’s ability to consider the full range of possible options to deal with the growing capacity problem faced by our multimodal, national freight network.
Fast-forward to July of this year and the passage of MAP-21. In addition to establishing the Freight Policy Council, it requires several things important to freight, including a focus on reducing the time of project completion, primarily through a more streamlined environmental permitting process; the designation of a National Highway Freight Network as a distinct subset of the National Highway System, and completion, within two years, of a comprehensive study of truck size and weight. These are important steps, signifying an expanded focus on freight and indicating a readiness to take a more holistic approach toward creating a national freight strategy — one that will bring about real, lasting change and, most importantly, boost capacity and drive us to an efficient multimodal freight network that is necessary to support economic growth.
To ensure the goals of MAP-21 are realized, it will require concerted effort on two items in particular: (1) Establishing and agreeing on a national freight policy; and (2) Increasing the efficiency and throughput of the current highway infrastructure. Importantly, we cannot continue to focus primarily on physical infrastructure and intermodalism as the primary solutions. By DOT’s estimates, freight increases in all modes will quickly outpace existing capacity. There is simply no way to build our way out of expected increases in freight and avoid the resultant capacity constraints. And intermodal shipments are a very small portion of the total freight movements in the United States. A solution set that is limited to these options guarantees failure in achieving the full promise of MAP-21.
It really is all about balance, having realistic expectations leading to achievable goals. Even with the positive momentum that MAP-21 provides, we still have tough issues to resolve. Can we agree on a National Freight Policy? How can we arrest and reverse the decline in the Highway Trust Fund? Where will we find the funds to assure America’s highway infrastructure is the best in the world? How can we speed up the permit and construction process while still protecting the environment? Do we have the backbone to address really hard policy issues like outmoded truck size and weight restrictions — the single biggest step we can take to improve throughput in the freight system, lower the cost of goods in the United States, and minimize our impact on the environment?
The good news is that we now have a path forward and a mechanism to bring together the highest levels of government with private industry and other stakeholders to take a holistic view of our freight network. The vision of MAP-21 is a different approach that promises new solutions that will assure a balanced, effective national freight network that is so critical to our economy and our future.
Mullett is vice president of government relations and public affairs at Con-way Inc. He can be reached by email.