For decades, freight interests have complained about having little or no voice in the nation's infrastructure planning process. If legislation introduced today by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) ends up becoming law (or becomes part of another, larger bill), that may change.
The bill (S. 3629)—also known as the Focusing Resources, Economic Investment and Guidance to Help Transportation Act of 2010 (the FREIGHT Act)—directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop a "National Freight Strategic Plan" that would serve as a roadmap for future infrastructure investments dedicated to the movement of goods. The bill also calls for the creation within DOT of an Office of Freight Planning and Development, to be led by an assistant secretary for freight planning and development. In addition, the measure includes a "National Freight Infrastructure Grants" initiative, a permanent program that would award funds to freight projects based on merit and after a competitive bidding process.
Freight advocates hailed the bill as the most far-reaching attempt Congress had made to give freight a place at the infrastructure table. "It's the most broad-based policy I've yet seen," said Mortimer L. Downey, former deputy secretary of transportation under President Clinton and chairman of the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors, a group of 40 organizations that have joined forces to improve national freight efficiency. "The legislation reflects much of what the Chamber has been calling for—a national freight transportation program for identifying and funding federal, state, and metropolitan efforts to ensure adequate capacity, reduce congestion, and increase throughput," said Janet L. Kavinoky, who heads transportation infrastructure programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business trade group.
Kavinoky added that "the key to the grant portion's success is in finding additional dedicated revenues so that other federal transportation priorities aren't diluted."
The Lautenberg bill is silent on funding mechanisms to support the freight-centric programs. The bill's supporters, which include a broad cross-section of transport interests, say they will work closely with the Senate Finance Committee to develop appropriate funding tools.
The groups said they will support the legislation either as a stand-alone measure or if it is incorporated into a multi-year transport reauthorization measure. The most recent reauthorization expired on Sept. 30, 2009, and transport reauthorization programs have been surviving ever since on a series of short-term extensions. Virtually no one expects a multi-year bill to pass Congress at least through President Obama's term.
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a six-year, $500 billion reauthorization program. Of that, $450 billion would be financed through the Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by excise taxes on diesel and motor fuel taxes. Oberstar's efforts have made little headway, however.
Advocates of the Lautenberg bill said today the senator's staff has been in contact with key lawmakers in both chambers to discuss the legislation. The bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats from the state of Washington.