In its 44-year history, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has never had a multimodal freight office tasked with planning and coordinating federal policies governing the nationwide movement of goods.
Sen. Maria E. Cantwell wants to change that.
The junior senator from Washington state on Thursday urged Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to establish a "freight initiative" within the Office of the Secretary. The office would be run by a "special assistant" with sole responsibility within DOT for overseeing efforts to "improve federal freight policy, planning, and investment" across all modes, Cantwell, a Democrat, said in a letter to LaHood.
Such a high-level program would "ensure America's federal freight priorities are coordinated across all modes," Cantwell said. It would channel policy planning, direction, and execution into a central office, and would eliminate the decentralized decision-making that sows confusion and stalls progress on key programs, she added.
A spokesman for LaHood did not respond by press time to a request for comment.
ROOTS IN THE '90s
The concept of creating a dedicated office within DOT to orchestrate freight programs is not new. In 1991, Congress established an Office of Intermodalism, when it passed legislation calling for a six-year reauthorization of federal transport programs. The office was first staffed in 1995 during the Clinton administration. However, while the office was involved in numerous outreach efforts with the various DOT sub-agencies, it was never given the necessary authority to coordinate efforts between them.
That point was highlighted in a 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which noted that the various freight-related programs within DOT "are not coordinated by any single office or operating administration." The lack of a central planning authority results in "fragmented efforts across the department," GAO said. The Office of Intermodalism, GAO said at the time, "does not fulfill this role, and no other office has been given the responsibility."
The concept of a freight office was also proposed to be part of a two-year surface transport reauthorization bill that passed the Senate and is now the subject of negotiations between House and Senate conferees trying to agree on multiyear reauthorization legislation. However, the language was gutted after Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, the body that oversee transport programs in the Senate, objected to portions of the reauthorization bill that included the provision, according to a Washington source. Cantwell also sits on the committee.
The Senate bill includes language calling for a "National Freight Program," but it doesn't appear that it calls for action so specific as creating a coordinating freight office within DOT.
Industry reaction was mostly favorable, though some—speaking off the record—dismissed it as a non-event. "The department's strong asset is its modal expertise, but its enduring liability is its modal separation and consequent 'stove-piping,'" said J. Bruce Carlton, president of the National Industrial Transportation League, the nation's oldest and largest shipper group.
"In this interconnected and highly competitive global marketplace, the United States needs to develop a national freight policy that coordinates stakeholders, prioritizes projects, and focuses much-needed attention on supply chain efficiency," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, called the proposal a "significant step in moving national transportation policy toward a greater focus on improving the efficiency of freight transportation networks."
Charles T. "Chuck" Carroll, executive director of the National Association of Waterfront Employers, stamped his own blunt seal of approval on the idea. "That the Office of the Secretary doesn't already have a freight office doesn't make sense. Therefore, the idea of establishing one is a no-brainer," he said. "Today, so much of freight logistics cuts across the modes. It isn't enough to view goods movement as a 'highway thing' or rail or maritime thing. It is all of these things."